11 April 2018
The Threat of Mass Surveillance in America
In today’s society technology is no longer what it used to be, and it has become an essential part of people’s day to day lives. Now more than ever people have access to technological devices such as cell phones and computers which has allowed people to connect and share large amounts of personal information through phone calls, instant messages, and within the confines of the internet. Many people deemed these forms of communication to be private however mass surveillance has been allowed under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. The FISA or foreign intelligence surveillance act gave the NSA or National Security Agency almost unchecked power to monitor Americans’ international and domestic phone calls, text messages, and emails under the guise of targeting foreigners outside of the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU has long warned that “one part of the statute, Section 702, would be used to eavesdrop on Americans’ private communications rather than ensure national security and prevent acts of terrorism” (ACLU). In June of 2013, The Guardian published documents provided by “whistleblower” Edward Snowden confirming the massive scale of the NSA conducting warrantless mass surveillance of citizens domestically and abroad. Millions of people now have had their private information viewed and often times stored without them even knowing by the NSA tarnishing what little amount of privacy they had on the internet. The outcome of this not only threatens the democratic foundation which the nation was built upon but threatens America as a whole for as long as mass surveillance is allowed to be carried out for reasons such as threatening American citizens right to privacy, the U.S. economy, and free speech.
In 2013 Edward Snowden, a contractor working for the NSA, who had previously also worked for the CIA, leaked tens of thousands of documents to journalists; these documents depicted how intelligence agencies of “supposedly the most liberal states in the world had built a system of mass surveillance greater than anyone could have imagined” (Peries). This system allows the government to secretly monitor people’s activities like internet traffic, it can even look at who went on which websites, and what they did, saw or said; it also allowed government agents the power to intercept the private communications of anyone, by text or phone call, by email or web forum. The mass surveillance system even gave the National Security Agency the ability to build what they call a ‘pattern of life,’ essentially this is a detailed profile of a target the NSA has eyes on and anyone associated with them. This ‘pattern of life ‘program often results in a large swath of innocent people being pulled in without actually having ties to terror suspects because the agency is allowed to travel three places from the original target. Essentially, this would allow the NSA to build a bridge from the original target to people they have ties to and then, people, those people have ties to and so on and so forth.
Within the Snowden documents, he also mentions how the NSA is gathering and storing millions of metadata which provides records of almost anything a user does online. The NSA with this metadata is even allowed to look back at a years’ worth of information. Essentially, metadata offers the NSA the potential to find information on people who have later become targets which should allow them to catch bad guys easier. Unfortunately, the use of metadata also relies heavily on storing the personal data of internet users who are not, and probably never going to be, of interest to the US intelligence community.
Privacy is psychologically important and vital for democracy yet the people of the United States, a very democratic society live in an era of an ever-present act of mass surveillance. In the US, privacy is also a fundamental right, established in the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution which states “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized” (US Constitution amend 4). Even though the 4th amendment stands to protect against the violation of ones right to privacy the FISA Amendment Act of 2008 gives the NSA the ability to walk around the 4th amendment and take away people’s privacy creating a society with no actual privacy which can create negative psychological effects on the population under surveillance. A sense of privacy can play a significant role in the amount of control people feel they have over their lives. Everyone has private thoughts and behaviors that they keep under wraps, however, mass surveillance makes this much more challenging. As far back as 1996, “researchers found that people felt a loss of control when they knew they were being watched” (Villiness). Researchers have also found that as surveillance increases, so does anxiety and paranoia. Anxiety and paranoia are both negative effects of mass surveillance because they can lead to a whole host of health conditions, including high blood pressure, obesity, respiratory problems, gastrointestinal problems, and even cancer. Evidence has also shown that the possibility of even being under surveillance changes the way people think and act causing them to avoid “writing or talking about sensitive or controversial subjects—discussions that are necessary for the functioning of a free society” (Villines). The most negative effect however of mass surveillance is the psychological effect of conformity which means when people know they are being watched they would be more likely to conform when being observed by a higher authority. A 2016 study showed that people naturally change their behavior when they are reminded that the government is monitoring their activities. To test the effects of surveillance, participants in the study were first shown a fictional news headline. They were then asked how they felt about the event while being regularly reminded that their responses were being monitored. As a result, most people in the study began to suppress their opinions about the fictional event that they felt to be controversial or that they believed may lead to the government to scrutinize them. This conformity effect is so strong that it has the potential to limit people’s ability to dissent and give the government the ability to eliminate people from having critical viewpoints about the government.
Privacy may not be the only casualty of the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance program. Major sectors of the US economy have reported financial declines as result of the leaks from Edward Snowden which shook consumer confidence and US trade partners have actually distanced themselves from companies that may have been compromised by the NSA or, worse, are secretly working with the spy agency. AT&T for, example, had an article written by The Wall Street Journal reporting how the company lost major business deals “due to the company’s well-documented involvement in the NSA’s data-collection programs” (Timm). The tech company Cisco as well reported a twelve percent slump in sales because the NSA’s activities have created “a level of uncertainty or concern that will have a deleterious impact on a wide-range of tech companies” (Timm). The damage may even get progressively worse one study released shortly after the first Edward Snowden leaks said: “the economy would lose $22 to $35 billion in the next three years” (Timm). Another study said that “the $35 billion estimate was too low and pegged the real loss figure around $180 billion for the US tech industry by 2016” (Timm). These tech companies both contribute significantly to the United States economy, however, they both allowed the NSA to directly tap into their fiber optic cables to copy vast amounts of innocent Americans’ internet traffic. AT&T was also revealed as having partnered with both the DEA and the CIA on separate mass surveillance programs. Cisco, on the other hand, was even accused of helping China spy on dissidents and religious minorities. It would be too easy to just blame these businesses for their own actions as the result of why they are experiencing a decrease in profit, however, the decline is solely based upon the fact they collaborated with the NSA. This collaboration with the NSA has made many foreign businesses skeptical of investing in the U.S. economy because if the NSA has been leaked of conducting mass surveillance on their own people what makes these foreign businesses think it won’t happen to them.
For much of its history, the United States has prided itself on being the ideal model of what freedom, democracy, and an open, accountable government looks like. Freedoms of expression and association, as well as rights to privacy, are protected by the Constitution, and US officials often speak with pride of the freedom the media has within the United States to report on matters of public concern and even hold the government accountable for its action. This privilege is not something all media outlets across the world have access to which makes it not only something unique to the United States but a vital component of the democratic foundation of the nation itself. Whether it is gathering important information the public needs to know or reporting valuable information to the public to increase government transparency, it is often crucial that journalists keep certain information private from the government. In the face of a massively powerful surveillance system controlled by the US government, however, privacy is becoming increasingly small and difficult to ensure. As a result, journalists and their sources are being undermined by the presence of mass surveillance. For journalists, the surveillance programs have restricted the unregulated contact between officials and the press which constricts the flow of information concerning government activity that might never get out otherwise. Mass surveillance also limits the ability of government officials to remain anonymous in their interactions with the press, any interaction such as an email, phone call, or text now puts them at risk of leaving a digital trace that could subsequently be used against them. This limitation from mass surveillance has ultimately limited journalist’s sources as officials are less likely to give information now to the media. In turn, the media is being restricted in conducting their check on the government and creating a more transparent government overall because “the work of journalists is central to our democracy” (Sinha).
In the novel 1984, Orwell depicts a dystopian society in which citizens obey the commands of the government and follow all the rules due to fear and the punishment that would subsequently follow if a rule were broken. This fear results from the knowledge that the administration has systems in place to ensure that they know what all citizens are doing but they don’t know when the government is observing them. Telescreens are the main system this society would use to observe their citizens for they are one-way screens that would allow the government to listen in and observe the people on the other side. The presence of these telescreens has actually made some of the citizens “simply assume that they are always being watched, and most no longer care” (Crouch). The citizens based off of their knowledge that they are being watched to a degree, have learned to control their expressions and often times would maintain a blank face to ensure that the government would never deem them as holding any sort of emotion that could be deemed a threat to the administration. This constant surveillance, control, and manipulation is symbolized in the novel through this idea of “Big Brother”, and the phrase, “Big Brother is watching you,” is repeated throughout the novel. The idea of “Big Brother is watching you” became a slogan in the novel used to remind citizens that they are always being watched and scrutinized. In America however, the phrase has come to symbolize the abuse of government power especially that of mass surveillance being used to spy on citizens. Orwell in the novel also touches on how citizens were willing to surrender their privacy and personal freedoms due to fear that came with mass surveillance. In the United States people have increasingly given up their own personal freedoms and right to privacy at their own will by handing over their own private information through the use of websites and technological devices that benefit them but also take their information without them even knowing or caring. Similarly, Orwell’s telescreens and the government’s use of them to spy on their citizens do draw parallels to the United States use of cell phones, computers, and the internet to gather information and spy on people without them knowing. The surveillance technology of today may draw parallels to the technology used in Orwell’s novel, however, today’s technology goes way beyond what Orwell could have even dreamed of for Orwell “never could have imagined that the National Security Agency (NSA) would amass metadata on billions of our phone calls and 200 million of our text messages every day. Orwell could not have foreseen that our government would read the content of our emails, file transfers, and live chats from the social media we use” (Giroux). It can be said that Orwell’s novel about a dystopian society where mass surveillance sees everything their citizens are doing has evolved over time from just being a realistic novel into an actual real-life country that implements similar mass surveillance methods also known as the United States.
According to Washington post-pew research center poll taken in 2013, “56 percent of Americans believe it is acceptable for the NSA to secretly collect the telephone call records of millions of Americans” (Howerton). This percent comes despite the fact that some people were outraged over the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs that were exposed by the Snowden documents. Additionally, “45 percent of Americans say the government should be able to go even further and monitor all online activity if it would prevent future terrorist attacks” (Howerton). These statistics depict that not everyone in America feels that mass surveillance is a threat to democracy or the United States rather they are supporters of mass surveillance and are a clear opposing viewpoint to the previous arguments made in the essay. This opposing viewpoint or pro mass surveillance have multiple arguments as to why mass surveillance is a good thing for American society such as trusting the president and politicians on how they handle mass surveillance. When those in favor of the mass surveillance state that they trust our president and politicians on how they handle mass surveillance and that’s why it is not a threat in America they fail to realize that the very people they trust are not so trustworthy. They believe that these politicians will not use their information in any negative way, however “once collected, your personal data exists forever, and is available to whomever in the future can access it, using whatever technologies come to exist” (Buren). This would be extremely naïve to allow such power to rest in the hands of politicians and the president regardless of how much the public trust them. Pro-mass surveillance supporters like to use the statement that “it prevents terrorism” as a means to why mass surveillance is necessary for America, although terrorist attacks in the United States have dropped dramatically since 9/11 “the NSA wasn’t able to provide a single substantiated dragnet preventing any domestic attack at all” (McLaughlin). The NSA even failed at preventing the Boston Marathon bombing even though they had eyes on the two terrorists before they went through with the attack. Probably the most common argument of all made by this side is that “if you haven’t done anything wrong you have nothing to fear” is another common statement used by this side to justify mass surveillance, however, it uses the concept that if you obey the law the law should not bother you. As American citizens privacy is a right, not a privilege and by allowing the government to walk around the American people’s right to privacy it threatens all the other rights the American people are guaranteed to within the Constitution and “your rights matter, because you never know when you’re going to need them”(Snowden).
Technology has advanced tremendously within the United States and has played a key role in how society operates. Emails, phone calls, text messages, and the internet have become the key platforms used today to communicate allowing people to share private personal information and ideas with little to no thought. The Snowden leaks, however, exposed just how private communication really is in America and gave insight into how unchecked government agencies like the NSA could evolve into a massive crack that threatens to destroy the very democratic foundation the nation was built upon. Mass surveillance also threatens the American people’s privacy, economy, free speech, and constitutional rights but the real threat of mass surveillance in America is how we’re losing leverage. “Governments are increasingly getting more power and we are increasingly losing our ability to control that power, and even to be aware of that power” (Snowden).