In an age where every facet of our lives is becoming increasingly public, it is crucial for us to understand domestic surveillance and how it pertains to modern society. At our fingertips, we hold more information than any previous generation (a wolf in sheep’s clothing perhaps). Our data is being collected and used to manipulate how we perceive reality, and our fellow Americans are being presumptuously profiled as terrorists, often on the basis of their skin color and religion. This is not an issue that can be ignored, and in order to take a firm stance, it is imperative that we know the objective truths, pertinent to this topic. The National Security Agency has been using covert decryption programs to access our interpersonal communication using backdoors implemented by a program befittingly labeled “BULL RUN”. But this civil war is not a dispute between brothers. This is a dictatorial father inciting fear in the hearts of his children and claiming to know what’s best for them. His motives may seem protective, but there is a subtle maliciousness to his claims. As the NSA Directorate succinctly states “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” (1). This excessive domestic surveillance has a negative impact on our society, and that there are several resolutions which display solvency. The United States federal government should substantially curtail its use of domestic surveillance by dissolving current covert decryption programs along with the SPOT program.
In 2013, Edward Snowden, an employee of renowned intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, illegally downloaded and leaked 1.5 million files pertaining to the NSA’s use of cyber-surveillance tactics to collect private information from citizens of the United States and foreign allies (qtd. in Szoldra 1). Due to these leaks, the program BULL RUN was revealed, leading to a mass public outcry. In an article posted on Security Affairs webpage, the author states “The extension of US surveillance activities seems to have no limits neither borderlines, every communication and data despite being protected with sophisticated encryption mechanisms were accessible by US Intelligence and its partners like Britain’s GCHQ” (Paganini 1). While these revelations are inherently concerning, it important to evaluate the legal, ethical, and constitutional precedence which allowed such a program to come to fruition.
Article 4 of the Bill of Rights endows the following:
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 Const. amend. IV, sec. 1).
It would seem to the majority of the population that this amendment provides the necessary and sufficient means to repeal programs that encroach on the privacy of citizens who are not under active, authorized investigation. Constitutional law advocates have reached a consensus on this issue; however, constitutionality and legality are not synonymous.
There are several arguments frequently made in defense of the legality concerning domestic surveillance. One oft-cited reference is the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.” Under section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court may grant permission to “access tangible information in the case of an authorized investigation” (U.S cong. 215). The allusion to this article represents a gross misinterpretation of its meaning. The article explicitly states that information can only be collected in the case of an authorized investigation. While some may argue that there has been a continuing investigation since the events that occurred on September 11th of 2001, the article requires specificity and does not allow broad-spectrum surveillance of any citizen without just cause.
The use of decryption techniques on a nation’s own citizens is deplorable; however, in the case of NSA surveillance, it was not limited to the U.S. citizenry. The leak from Edward Snowden revealed that there were bugs placed in the UN offices in several locations, including the headquarters in Geneva. The interpersonal communication between German citizens was being recorded using furtively enacted backdoors, and the United States paid Great Britain 155 million dollars over the course of the three years in order to access and influence the information collected by state-affiliated spies. A cyber-attack of this scale is bound to have repercussions on our economic and political relationships.
We are often told that this surveillance program was implemented for our own security. Due to the recent rise in terrorism-related deaths, the executive powers within our country are simply seeking to create a safe environment, void of terrorists. While this may seem like a noble pursuit, its relative inefficacy implies that there may be an ulterior motive. Benjamin Franklin once said, “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” (Franklin 2). Lauren Kirchner, senior fellow and investigative reporter at ProPublica, writes in an article regarding the statistics of surveillance that the NSA has discussed only four cases where cyber-surveillance played a role in thwarting the plot of a terrorist. In only one such case was it considered to have made a “significant difference.” In all reality, there was no causal link between the man arrested and any particular act of terrorism. He simply gave money to a terrorist group (Kirchner 1). Due to the ineptitude of NSA programs to meet their supposed goal, and the unconstitutional overreach inevitably implicated in any domestic surveillance program, the only logical solution is to discontinue the use of BULL RUN or any of its facsimiles.
The NSA is not the only party guilty of perpetrating detestable acts of domestic surveillance. The Transportation Security Administration employs a program titled SPOT (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques) which uses behavioral detection in an attempt to curb terrorism. Maya Berry, executive director for the Arab American Institute, a policy institute focused on issues regarding relevant political issues, addressed a letter concerning this domestic security issue to former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. The letter purports that the use of the SPOT program is an ineffective, unethical use of domestic surveillance. According to the Governmental Accountability Office, nearly fifty thousand people were identified by the program and less than one one-hundredth of these people were arrested, none of them being terrorists. Another issue that she suggests has occurred due to the use of this program is racial profiling. Berry succinctly explicates the ineffectiveness of the program and uses GAO statistics to support her claims. In subjecting Muslims to extra searches and scrutiny, we effectively legalize discriminatory policies (1). Any person who claims to be an advocate for social equality should be vehemently opposed to such an operation.
One mistake that we should avoid when discussing such issues, is relegating humanity to an abstraction. These are real people that are being negatively profiled, merely on the basis of their skin color or creed. When I was in high school, I was a part of a policy debate team that competed nationwide. There was a member of our team from another school who was Sikh. Whenever the team would use air travel, he would be stopped at the TSA checkpoint and ushered into another room by security officials. They would question him as part of “normal process.” Oddly enough, none of the other members of the team were ever questioned as a part of this “normal process.” While he never felt specifically threatened by the questioning techniques, it was frustrating that he was continually profiled in such a negative way. Often times it takes a certain proximity to an issue in order for us to feel obligated to act. The TSA should terminate the use of the SPOT program, as it has been deemed ineffective and harmful to certain ethnic and religious groups.
This issue is pertinent to every single person reading this essay. Your private information is being collected and used in an attempt to manipulate and control the population. The use of covert decryption programs is unethical and unconstitutional. However, Jack Balkin argues in “The Constitution in the National Surveillance State” that we need to face the music and understand that it is not up to us whether the government curtails its domestic surveillance. The surveillance state is inherent, and while it may be unconstitutional, it is inevitable. While terrorism is an oft-cited reason behind surveillance, the most pertinent justification is actually the technological world in which we live, and its ability to provide private entities with infinite data collection (4). Facebook was recently implicated in a scandal with Cambridge Analytica in which there was deemed to be a flagrant misuse of the personal data being used to influence political campaigning at home and abroad. The use of surveillance is not limited to public entities: Private corporations are intrinsically entangled in this issue, and there should be an increased executive or congressional directive in regulating their misuse of private data collection.
The United States federal government should substantially curtail its use of domestic surveillance by dissolving current covert decryption programs and the SPOT program, along with increasing the regulation of personal data collection within the private sector. The aforementioned programs are not only ineffective but also create an environment that kills decision making and implements racial and religious discrimination (Crampton 14). Abraham Lincoln stated in his second State of the Union address: “The dogmas of our quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise to the occasion. As our case is new, so must we think anew and act anew”(Lincoln 4).We have never faced an attack on our privacy of this depth and breadth. The time for inaction is over, cognitive dissonance is no longer acceptable.
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