Who’s watching the watcher, and does it matter?

Now that I have the NSA’s attention, I want to spend today’s post debating a few of the major points related to the recent privacy/government surveillance scandals that have hit Washington, Silicon Valley, and everyone who has ever sent an email, made a phone call, or googled ‘Keyboard Cat’.

1)   The government has the responsibility to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks

boston bombing

Could the Boston Marathon Bombing have been prevented with more surveillance?

This is the position stated by the government, obviously.  The White House and heads of security agencies have declared this position in response to accusations that it has overreached.  They are not ignoring the fact that certain individual liberties are being infringed upon –“You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.” Obama said. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”  – but their argument is that these infringements are worth the information detected and thus violence prevented.  ‘”If you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, you need a haystack,” Jeremy Bash, chief of staff to Leon E. Panetta’.  All in all, the argument is that it is for the good of the nation (although, notably, the ‘patriotism’ language is absent from this discussion, unlike the discussions that were linked to the passage of the Patriot Act in the early 2000s.  Perhaps this is a difference in Republic vs Democrat vocabulary).

I believe that it is the government’s responsibility to support and protect its citizens – to ensure they have access to healthcare, housing, protection, etc.  Laws preventing murder, rape, theft, etc., are in place because, in certain situations, limiting an individual’s freedom is necessary to ensure the freedom of others (i.e. if person A wants to murder person B, it’s the government’s responsibility to inhibit person A’s ‘freedom to murder’ in order to ensure person B’s ‘freedom to live’).  With freedom comes responsibility to not inhibit the freedom of others.  So I see the government’s argument. However…

2)   Rebuttal

One of the main issues people have with the government’s argument is not so much regarding the outcome, but the process.  Of course we want the outcome to be that terrorist threats are prevented.  However, who ensures the government doesn’t overreach?  Who surveys the surveyor? Intelligence collection by definition requires discretion.  Therefore, the government is always able to argue that a) we can’t tell you what we’re looking for or what we’ve found for security reasons, and b) whatever we do is for the greater good – we are the only ones able to weigh the pros and cons.  As the ones supposedly being protected, sure citizens have the right to know how and why they’re being protected.

I wish that we could trust the government to always do ‘what is right’.  However, that statement in itself is possible – ‘what is right’ to one individual is different to ‘what is right’ to another.  I do not believe that there is a universal morality that can govern all of mankind – we always have conditions and exceptions.  E.g. Take murder: we might say ‘it’s always wrong to kill someone’.  Well, some people might say ‘except if they’re about to kill you!’  Or ‘except if they’re about to kill one million people’.  What if it was an accident?  Who decides what the intention was?  In a democratic society, the goal is to ensure that the freedoms of the majority of people are respected and protected (note, not that the majority decides the freedoms.  That can (and does) lead to discrimination of minorities).

Therefore, I find it difficult to trust that individuals in government, without oversight and input from the citizens they are supposedly trying to protect, will always act in the best interest of those citizens.

nsa original image

NSA Headquarters

3)   The government doesn’t have the right to have access to my private information

This is a position held by many, especially libertarians from the left and right.  It is an individual’s right to have privacy.  Similarly to how it is illegal to go through someone’s mail, it should be illegal to go through someone’s e-mail.  Technological advances have meant that previously difficult-to-access information, such as conversations, whereabouts, etc., can be tracked.  For example, before GPS was so widespread, your exact location could not be traced without significant effort (i.e. physically following someone).  The rights that people have should not be limited because of technological advances.

I agree that easy of access to information shouldn’t mean it should automatically be tracked and recorded by the government.  Just because it’s easier for the NSA to look into my communications doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to.  However…

4)   If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t be worried

This is true!  Even if the government is tracking me, what’s the problem??  I’m not breaking any laws, I’m not planning any attacks.  There are over 300 million people in the US – is it really logical to think that every detail of every individual is being scoured?  No!  The government is looking for signs of wrongdoing within the population, not the other way round.  An example would be in a word document – if you want to find the letter ‘w’, will you look at every single letter in every single word in the hopes of finding the letter ‘w’, or will you press ctrl-f and then ‘search’ for ‘w’?  The latter!   Interestingly, polls taken show that people generally support surveillance, yet don’t think that they themselves are being surveyed.  ‘Poll Finds Disapproval of Record Collection, but Little Personal Concern’ reads the title of an NY Times article that analyzed polling.

Once again, my conflict is: who decides what is right and what is wrong?  The Obama administration may state that it is searching for terrorist threats, but McCarthy stated that he was simply looking for Communist threats.  Is everyone with any Islamic association being monitored and silenced, as many people with leftist leanings were silenced during McCarthyism?  If that is the case, I personally believe that inhibiting individual liberties, such as the freedom to worship and freedom of expression, are not worth the possibility of finding a potential threat.

5)   This information is being collected anyway

data centerThis information is being collected and stored whether we like it or not.  It is part of the workings of technology – emails are stored somewhere.  If you want access to email, you are signing yourself up to having personal information online.  Same with Facebook, same with making phone calls.  Unless you’re going to go completely off the grid, your information is going to be somewhere.  Advertisers are using it, other people are using it, and governments are using it – some might argue ‘what’s the difference?’ (a joke, of course, but with a nugget of truth).  The issue, in my mind, isn’t so much that the information is being collected, or even that it’s being looked at or used – to me, the issue is who is making sure this access isn’t being abused?  There are some possible solutions… but that is for another post.

Thank you for reading.

I’m sorry that the NSA is tracking you now.