Looking into the Prism: Surveillance, Secrecy, and Snowden

PRISMMedia outlets have been abuzz for the past few weeks, scandalizing the revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) has vast records, even on Americans.  The question of security versus surveillance has provided much room for debate, even inviting comparisons to oppressive regimes.  Perhaps even more heavily, the popular media is fascinated by the Edward Snowden, the Booz Allen contractor responsible for the leaks.

In engaging in such pervasive surveillance, the government is overstepping its bounds.  While the actions of these agencies are likely legal, they are not necessarily appropriate.  President Obama and other officials have repeatedly insisted that these actions are not made explicitly illegal by the word of law.  Rather, they have been sanctioned by all branches of the federal government.  Is this enough? 

The law simply has not caught up with innovations in telecommunications.  It does not protect against those infractions which were not envisioned or understood at the time of passage.  Legislation should be crafted to curb these intrusions more specifically.  Such legislation should be carved out carefully with the cooperation of government agencies, think tanks, and lawyers working in national security, consumer technology, telecommunications, and civil liberties.

NSA surveillance programs such as PRISM are important and have likely aided in the prevention of terrorist attacks.  Just because these methods are effective, however, does not mean that they are necessary. While I ultimately trust the U.S. government, its human employees and  contractors are capable of error and treason.  Edward Snowden’s actions demonstrate this.

There is no reason for the government to be making requests as broad as media coverage seems to indicate.  While I do trust the governments intentions, I do not trust it to keep all of this data secure.  Snowden show that the security of this information can and has been compromised.  What happens when the wrong individuals, organizations, or states get their hands on that same data?  Cybersecurity concerns are only further exasperated by having so many copies of the data lying around.

Some argue that the government has always made intrusions on privacy as necessary for . . . governance.  We as citizens have, for quite some time, submitted substantial amounts of personal information to the government.  That is true.  Take IRS tax returns and audits, for example. Yet, just a few weeks ago, the American public discovered that government officials in the IRS were unfairly targeting political groups that did not agree with them.  Once again, the system can break down because of just a few people, resulting in unjust discrimination.

Furthermore, note a not-so-subtle difference.  Citizens fill out IRS forms and are conscious that they are being scrutinized in some form.  Citizens have not been aware, in contrast, of a NSA surveillance program that stores data from their telecommunications.  Websites have Terms of Service (ToS) that one agrees to by using these sites.  Though one does not need to click “agree” before entering a site, the terms are posted consistently (such as at the bottom of a webpage).  What are the government’s Terms of Service?

Edward Snowden’s releases demonstrate that the government may overstep its bounds in some ways.  However, his actions in themselves demonstrate how easily individuals can threaten our personal and national security with access to this data.  He himself has fled to China, the country widely viewed as posing the most systematic cyber security threat to the United States.  Even if the data he possesses is seized unwillingly, he will have compromised national security efforts.  Snowden can thus be considered an enemy of the state.  Turning people like Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, and Julian Assange into idols and martyrs can open some dangerous floodgates.

Finally, tech companies should not be blamed for their role in a surveillance program whose name they may not have even known.  They have been caught in a bind, for they cannot defy the law.  If they refuse intelligence requests, they find themselves in trouble with one arm of the government.  If they deceive their investors and their customers, they find themselves in trouble with other arms of that same monstrous beast.  This is an industry that has not until recently invested in its relationship with Washington.  Issues such as this one likely motivate them to continually strengthen their DC-based Legal and Government Relations teams (as well as their campaign donations).

If nothing more, what is clear is that these issues need more attention.  The NSA must find and close the gaps that allowed such leaks to occur.  The technology companies must establish and make use of political relationships that truly allow them defend consumer rights.  The citizen consumers themselves must discuss the issues at hand and what tradeoffs they are willing to make.  The officials that represent them must heed that discussion to draft, enforce, and protect appropriate and comprehensive law.