Mass Government Surveillance: The Price of a Secure Nation?

By: Danny Ho

Mass government surveillance is a unique issue of concern in our increasingly technological era. Mass surveillance refers to the government’s indiscriminate monitoring of a large group of people through collection of large sets of data such as telephone records, emails, and internet activity. This issue gained public attention in 2013 when Edward Snowden, a former CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) employee and NSA (National Security Agency) contractor, leaked confidential information about the NSA’s global surveillance programs. The Snowden disclosures revealed alarming evidence of government intrusion into the private lives of individuals. Among the revelations was the clandestine government program (code-named PRISM) that allowed the NSA to gain direct access to individual Google and Yahoo accounts with court approval.

The 2013 Snowden disclosures forced our government to engage with privacy advocates and the public at large with regards to the implications of its surveillance policies. However, a string of recent global and domestic terrorist attacks – from San Bernardino to Parisrenewed the push for government surveillance programs to respond to fears that terrorists will otherwise avoid government detection. Knowledge of past invasive government surveillance programs and national security fears from recent terrorist attacks have created a complex public debate. Here, the tension between the need for surveillance programs and the infringement of individual privacy rights provides a salient issue of dispute.

The strongest argument in favor of mass surveillance is simple: the government needs to collect data in order to intercept terrorists before they are able to act. In the recent case between the FBI and Apple Inc., the government requested access to an iPhone used by one of the shooters in from the San Bernardino shooting in late 2015. This information could be useful in identifying terrorist connections, determining how the shooters carried out the attack, and gaining insight into possible future attacks. The court never issued a final ruling on the case because the FBI was able to hack the phone of the San Bernardino shooter without Apple’s assistance. The FBI dropped the law suit shortly thereafter. In today’s age, where technology permeates life and digital communication is effortless, it is easy to see how someone would carry out a terrorist attack using common communicative technologies and how intercepting those data bits could thwart the same attack.

The main cost of mass surveillance, however, is individual privacy. Although not explicitly written into the Constitution, the Supreme Court recognized a Constitutional right to privacy in 1965 in the landmark case of Griswold v. Connecticut. An individual’s right to privacy is multi-faceted, including informational privacy, bodily privacy, privacy of communication and territorial privacy.

As President Obama stated, however, “you can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience.” With that in mind, what is the correct balance between the individual right to privacy and national security concerns? Is it appropriate that the government can collect a large quantity by merely arguing it serves the purpose of national security? Is it even necessary to collect vast oceans of personal data in this endeavor?

Some would emphatically disagree by pointing to the apparent ineffectiveness of these surveillance programs in the past few years. The White House review panel on the NSA’s surveillance program determined that mass surveillance programs have not prevented any major terrorist attacks and that its methods were not essential to national security. In fact, information is useless in excess because experts have no way of deciphering what is truly relevant. The task would be similar to trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. If mass surveillance results in no real benefits for national security, why are we sacrificing our individual liberties?

Indeed, surveillance programs can be adversely utilized for purposes beyond national security concerns. For example, in 2014, the CIA hacked into Senate computers due to a negative report about CIA’s interrogation practices. The Director of the CIA, John Brennan, denied the accusation, but evidence showed that Brennan contemplated issuing an official apology after the discovery of CIA misconduct. This incident suggests just one apparent risk posed by our government’s actions.

Furthermore, if the government uses data from mass surveillance programs for anything other than preventing real threats to our security, we are giving up our right to privacy for something less than absolute necessity. Current views on U.S. surveillance programs reflect this concern. In fact, a survey done by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan group based in Washington, D.C., revealed that more than 50% of Americans are at least somewhat concerned about the intrusive nature of U.S. surveillance practices. Additionally, a majority of the surveyed Americans said that they were less than confident that the government was using the surveillance programs for national security purposes.

Given that the public is already skeptical about mass surveillance, the programs we already have in place should at least try to minimize unnecessary intrusions and ensure that national security interests are the sole purpose of the programs. Whatever the solution to the successful prevention of major terrorist attacks may be, current surveillance practices seem overly intrusive and raise more controversy than benefit.