I will start my reflection by stating outright that I take no position, for or against, on the NSA’s electronic mass surveillance program, nor do I have a personal opinion on the matter. It is a complicated issue, and I do not feel that a few public statements and editorials are enough for me to make an informed decision on the matter.
On one hand, the very idea of an agency of the government monitoring our private communications to assess how threatening we are is so Orwellian, that one’s natural first reaction as a citizen of a democracy is to cringe in horror. The belief that our privacy is a fundamental right, one that should not be so easily curtailed, is so strong that it is written into the constitution “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects… shall not be violated… but upon probable cause…” The fourth amendment is very clear: a reason for a search or seizure must be ascertained before the act itself, and the particulars of the search must well defined. Ignoring all other acts, laws, and legal decisions since 1776, the actions of the NSA are illegal.
However, the original edition of the fourth amendment was written before a time when a criminal or a mentally ill person could, with only a minimum of assistance and resources, do great harm to many people. The constitution was never meant to be a fixed document, slowly becoming obsolete in the face of new technology and new situations. The fact remains that the world has changed, the modern enemies of the modern enemies of the U.S. don’t wear one uniform or fly one flag, and most don’t even take orders from the same place. Decentralized terrorism has made traditional means of intelligence gathering ineffective. We live in a new age, with new tools that have the potential to both threaten and safeguard the security of this nation.
We cannot deny ourselves any weapons in the struggle for security based on words that were never meant to address every situation. But we also cannot just throw away the liberties that we hold so dear, just because we get scared of what might happen otherwise. The U.S. public has to come to a modern conclusion as to how much surveillance is too much, we’ve put it off for thirteen years and now were paying the price.
Setting aside the current debate, there is a fact that should be considered far more often than it is: there is are precedents of this situation in U.S. history. During the civil war, the Union government routed vast portions of the telegraph office through the office of the secretary of war, he had an unprecedented amount of authority to both view what was being sent, as well as stop telegraphs from being delivered.
A point of special importance; every time that a surveillance program is shut down after being deemed too extreme, it has taken a larger public outcry. Lincoln’s telegraph espionage was shut down from within the U.S. government. Shamrock was ended after a public outcry but now before. Today, we are in the aftermath of a major whistleblowing event. (That term is awkward to me as well, but I couldn’t think of a better one) This event has had major internal as well as international repercussions but, as far as we know, no major changes have been made to the NSA’s policy of mass surveillance, not has that initial outrage by the American public manifested itself since. The question can be asked: is the increasing resilience of mass surveillance programs a reflection of the fact that we increasingly live in a world where we need them?