Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
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The wages of national security are privacy, but are they worth it?

-- By AdrianNtwatwa - 28 Apr 2015

This paper is somewhat of a corollary to my first. That paper dealt with the different approaches the Chinese and American governments have when it comes to freedom of data flow: the latter clamping down and preventing it, and the latter mostly allowing it – not for the benefit of its people, but for its own need to ensure “national security”. This paper will deal with those national security justifications for monitoring data flow within the United States.

Section I

The argument goes as follows. Terrorists abound. They are everywhere, they are a threat to society, democracy, and freedom. Their attacks are extremely difficult to predict, yet the havoc they can wreak with just one successful attack is massive. It is an asymmetric war, and one in which we need to deploy each and every countermeasure we can to fend off the enemy. As a result, while privacy may be the cornerstone of democracy, we must permit “modest encroachments on privacy” for the greater good.

Most Americans agree with this argument. In a 2013 Pew Poll, 56% of Americans surveyed agreed that the NSA’s program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism . Meanwhile, an overwhelming 64% of those surveyed thought “it is more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy.” While less Americans are eager to jump on-board the fight-terrorism-at-all-costs train once personal emails are the subject of the monitoring , most Americans would still rank the fight on terror as a higher priority than privacy.

Due to such support, as well as the ignorance of many as to the true extent of their country’s spying efforts , the American government has been able to get away with a large variety and amount of spying on its citizens. Almost entirely thanks to Edward Snowden’s efforts we now know that the U.S. not only monitors our calling records and uses that metadata to piece together mosaics of our movements and the network of people with whom we communicate. We know that the government collects tons of data, often without warrants, and participates in aggressive forms of data mining.

Section II

So we know the government is spying on us, we know a little bit about the true extent of how much it is spying on us, and we know that many Americans agree with this. But is any of this actually achieving the intended result of curbing terrorism? Well, the answer to that is a very skeptical maybe, at best.

The problem with issues of national security is that there is no way for us to tell what is happening and if at all the situation is getting any better. Statistics on just how much terrorism is prevented on a daily basis due to invasions of privacy are not readily available. It would be great if we could say for every X phone calls the government monitored, Y number of terrorists were arrested. But that is not the reality we live in. When it comes to asking important questions about what spying techniques the government is using and how effective they are, the answer is often “this information is too important for the American people to know about it”.

What little information we do have regarding the efficacy of these programs is not that compelling. According to Obama and his administration in June 2013, the NSA’s efforts had at that time successfully prevented more than 50 attacks. While that is all well and good, it is difficult to determine what type of success rate that is. If every one of those attacks was on the scale of 9/11, then by all means, the NSA can and should be able to have all of our information (at least in my opinion). But we have no corroborating evidence as to what type of attacks these would have been, or the success we have achieved at the cost of our privacy. Furthermore, others have questioned whether the NSA’s spying is the really to thank for thwarting these terror attacks, suggesting that it was in fact other investigative tools of the government that foiled these plots . Finally, just considering the sheer scale of the government’s spying efforts, it is not clear if any amount of terror prevention could adequately justify the invasive/Orwellian nature of the spying involved to reach that end.

Section III

So my question now is this: in the face of inconclusive results (at best) and an ever-increasing amount of spying on the part of the government, why are Americans still so blasť about this issue? Admittedly, more Americans are concerned today than ever about privacy due to Snowden’s achievements . But this is by no means an issue trending among political commentators and voters a year before the coming election. Privacy and the NSA are not likely to rank number one on most Americans’ lists of policy priorities when they go to the polls, or even when they write their Congresswomen.

I cannot claim to know the answer to this question, but I suspect it is due to the still rampant ignorance amongst most Americans regarding this issue. If more Americans knew just how much information they were ceding to the powers that be every time they made a phone call or sent a text message, this issue would have long ago solved itself and this very paper would not exist.


President Obama on NSA spying. When it comes to monitoring emails, “a slim majority — 54 percent — say if they had to choose between preserving their rights and freedoms and protecting people from terrorists, they'd come down on the side of civil liberties.” Pew poll shows that 87% of U.S. adults have heard about the Snowden leaks and 34% of the had taken at least one action to shield their privacy.

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r2 - 26 Jun 2015 - 20:43:30 - MarkDrake
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