The NSA Crisis And You: Should You Care?

This week has been an interesting one in the intersecting worlds of politics and intelligence, with the exposure in the Guardian that Verizon has been, under court order, providing the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States with a daily record of the transactional details of every single phone call that originates or terminates in the United States. And, really, the only point in singling out Verizon is that they are the company mentioned on the court order released by the Guardian; you can safely presume that every other telephone company in the United States has been doing the same thing for the same reasons over the same period.

This is not the beginning or end of this matter, of course. Similarly, there is likely monitoring of every other communications media for (at least) the same information. If you are living in the United States, it is a very real likelihood that the NSA also has a record of all of the Internet browsing that originates from your IP address, including what sites you visited, what content you looked at and what search criteria you used to find it.

What this represents is a fishing expedition on a scale that is as massive as it is unprecedented. Through the intersecting realities of an interventionist government, a willing (or ignorant) citizenry and an omnipresent security culture, citizens of the United States are among the most monitored people in the world. Among, mind you. So if you are feeling smug about not actually living in the United States, and therefore not subject to such surveillance, think again. Just because you don’t know your government is engaging in similar surveillance doesn’t mean it is not happening; after all, the Verizon disclosure only occurred because someone out of principle felt that the presence of such monitoring should no longer be secret.

In other words, presume that—regardless of where you live—your actions are being monitored in a similar fashion (or, possibly, even more intrusively—a stretch though that might be, on the face of it). Should you care? And what can you do about it?

In my view, you should most certainly care. These are actions that are being taken by elected representatives of the people, without the knowledge—or acceptance—of those people. Most democracies are built on founding principles of freedoms that include those of privacy, free speech, assembly and communication. Actions such as this pretty much cut off all of those freedoms at the needs, and then proceed to cudgel them mercilessly. Justifying those actions by saying they are necessary to thwart terrorism, and that if you are not engaged in terrorist activity means you have no reason to be concerned, is a thin veneer that attempts to gloss over the many instances where the establishment has been entirely wrong about the actions innocent civilians. Engaging in a best-defence-is-a-good-offense argument of ‘if you are against this you’re with the terrorists’ (or child molesters), as we have sadly seen in Canada, is a specious attempt to cloak inappropriate actions in a mantle of moral righteousness. If such actions are genuinely necessary, then their existence—and how they are employed—should be subject to public debate, accountability and awareness.

As to what we can do about, going off the grid is probably not an awesome or realistic approach, appealing as it may be to the survivalists among us. For many, the temptation is to grudgingly accept or assume that they can do nothing about it (which is, arguably, the level of apathy that governments are hoping for in proceeding with intrusive levels of monitoring in the first place). Another strategy is to only engage in actions that you assume are being monitored in the first place, and to only engage in actions that you are prepared to have revealed. Science fiction writer John Scalzi humorously bridges these two strategies in a post on his web site this week, and the logic appears reasonable on its face. Certainly, there would be a lot fewer front-page scandals if more people followed this advice.

Acceptance seems an inadequate response, however, to the rise of what is in essence a police state. Residents of the Soviet Union and other east-bloc countries presumed–accurately—that they lived in such an environment. Phone calls were monitored, rooms were bugged, and neighbours monitored and reported on the actions of others. By the same token, it was precisely these abuses of power that led in part to the collapse of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall. So why, precisely, are we accepting of a far more pernicious and pervasive level of oversight and monitoring in countries that claim to be free?

There are those who, even while acknowledging the unprecedented and overwhelming breadth, condone it as both lawful and probably necessary. There are also those that would like to deliver a slap upside the head of the collective American (and arguably world-wide) conscience and highlight the degree to which basic rights of privacy are being imperilled. There are very real and reasonable cautions about when, and how, and by whom such data would be used, with (probably appropriate) cautions about the potential for its misuse and abuse.

Can a data collection strategy such as this be justified? Perhaps. Does access to such data enable law enforcement agencies to do their job more effectively? Probably. Is it open to abuses? Almost certainly. And that is why it is unacceptable. If we are going to allow the potential for privacy of innocent people to be breached as the price for fighting terrorism, then the when, how and why of its use needs to be subject to reasonable debate and oversight. The very fact that the court order that was disclosed forbade discussing its existence demonstrates a government who has something to hide. Given the growing reaction of the last couple of days, they were probably right. That doesn’t make the actions justified, or the extent of secrecy appropriate.

As a society, we are coming perilously close to the dystopian worlds that were described in ‘1984’ and ‘Brave New World’. They were intended by their authors as cautionary tales, highlighting the risks and abuses of power that could result when freedom of action, freedom of communication and—most particularly—freedom of thought were imperilled. Now we are the ones that are being watched. Innocent people have found their way behind the doors of cells far more frightening than those of Room 101. Neither accepting this fate, nor crying out “Do it to Julia!”, seem to be a reasonable or appropriate response.

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