Given the revelations over the past week, it seems clear that our government has overstepped what many of us would consider proper in the realm of surveillance.
Initial reports –
NSA Disclosure in the Guardian – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/06/nsa-phone-records-verizon-court-order
PRISM in WaPo – http://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/us-intelligence-mining-data-from-nine-us-internet-companies-in-broad-secret-program/2013/06/06/3a0c0da8-cebf-11e2-8845-d970ccb04497_story.html
While it is perhaps too early to call these reports “the facts”, the administration has not denied that the programs exist, and has defended their usage and effectiveness in combating terrorist threats. However, the power wielded seems to be incredibly massive – all phone records of all calls made in or out of US soil in a multi-year period, ability to sift through the content of internet communications (“accidentally” picking up a lot of intra-US material even when only foreign material is targeted), in addition to all types of surveillance we know is available already, including databases of license plate numbers and warrant-less wiretapping and the like.
The framers knew that power was a corrupting influence, so they attempted to split it up and let power balance power as much as was possible. The “tyranny of the majority” needed the representative process to “cool” its passions. Power was vested in 3 distinct branches, so that any movement would be tempered, and a broad concensus would be needed to move policy in very new directions. The American people are directly responsible for two of those branches, with a third as a derivation and quasi-impartial check on the rest. This balance of the government, along with the influence of the people and public opinion, is responsible for the (relative) success of our system to date.
However, inherent in this process is that the people can be an effective check on the actions that are done in their name; without transparency, there is no way to hold the government accountable for what it does. In this case, with the legislature signing away extremely broad powers of surveilence, the executive interpreting them in an aggressive manner, and all questions adjudicated by a court whose opinions can never be read, how can the public really know or even attempt to police PRISM, cellular metadata, and other types of ridiculous collecting of information?
Our laws have evolved epically slowly in this time of technological transformation. The jurisprudence that allows the government to collect and aggregate this data, read any emails over 180 days old, and tap into other internet communication without a warrant was built in a simpler, less connected time. It is up to us to become educated and push for a modernization of the law. For unreasonable search and seizure should not be limited to the physical world; my old emails and digital footprint are immensely more personal than if police were able to rummage through my pockets as they pleased.
It seems inevitable that this will lead to corruption. Why should I trust the 3 branches to do their duty in isolation, without the check of the people? Why should I be made to trust that they will not use it for other ends? Saying that “if we don’t trust in the 3 branches to do what’s right” (paraphrase) in secret, then “we’re going to have some problems”, does not make me feel particularly at ease. If something is too powerful, no one or group should wield that power over another.
Nearly no one outside of the administration and the few senators that have spoken out on the program have taken stands to defend it. See some of the commentary –
If each of the seemingly small number (200) of court orders on this is as big as the Verizon one… – http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2013/06/nsa-numbers/
The NYTimes in on the action – http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/07/opinion/president-obamas-dragnet.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
Sad for the country that has done so much to push freedom around the world (disagree if you wish) to not follow its own guidance – http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/06/07/prism_hurts_us_internet_freedom_rankings_freedom_house_to_downgrade_america.html?wpisrc=most_viral
I think that each of us should take a little effort to familiarize ourselves with these programs, and what they might mean for our own information stored online. When I think about the size of my online footprint in the context of this, it surely is disheartening. Something I might test later is https://myshadow.org/, which might be able to help out. Others have written articles to help out – http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/06/07/how_to_secure_and_encrypt_your_email_and_other_communications_from_prism.html.
Peripherally, it will be interesting to see how this effects many of tech’s biggest giants, who inherently now rely on our data as their major business proposition. What if that data dries up because we have no faith that it won’t be used against us? – http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/06/prism_apple_google_microsoft_how_the_nsa_s_surveillance_program_could_ruin.html
Very thought provoking stuff.