Are Americans Relinquishing Technological Privacy to Ensure Safety?

By Martine Bigos

Since Congress has granted the National Security Agency ( NSA) new powers in 2008, American privacy has been intercepted in order for citizens to remain safe.

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” – Benjamin Franklin

Has this famous quote s lost its context in the 21st century? Is new technology and increased NSA surveillance useful or unnecessary?

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 shaped the United States’ national security. The U.S.A. Patriot Act was passed by Congress in 2001 in order to improve law enforcement and collection of foreign intelligence. By 2008, Congress granted the National Security Agency (NSA) powers in technological interception. Before computers, information was gathered via human intelligence. Technology has begun to shape how Intelligence Communities (IC) gather domestic & foreign intelligence, since computer systems have become more useful for criminal activity. What does this entail? How much authority over technical surveillance does the NSA have? The NSA has been intercepting phone calls and Internet communications of American citizens. The NSA also receives wholesale copies of American’s phone calls and other communication records. In early 2006, former AT&T technician Mark Klein revealed that AT&T installed a fiber optic splitter at its facility in San Francisco. This splitter makes copies of all emails, web browsing, and other Internet traffic to and from AT&T customers. AT&T then provides the copies of both domestic and international internet activities to the NSA. Classified IC documents were released by the media in 2013, revealing that the NSA obtains copies of anything that is carried along major domestic fiber optic cable networks (strands of glass fibers inside an insulated casing, which are designed for long distance, high-performance data networking, and telecommunications). Fiber optic cable networking is crucial for computers.

“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 Constitution, The Fourth Amendment

The 4th Amendment was written in the Constitution in order to prevent the government from tampering with the privacy of its citizens. Many people have criticized the Patriot Act, claiming that it is contradictory to the 4th Amendment. The big question is: how is technology impacting privacy and national security, and should the Intelligence Community use technology to protect U.S. citizens if the right to privacy is sacrificed?

Pros of the NSA surveilling U.S. Citizens:

We are “in the Midst of a War on Terror”:

The likelihood of a terrorist entering America diminishes when tighter security measures are enforced. Though innocent people will lose their much-loved personal space, lone terrorist or terrorist organizations that target U.S. towns can be stopped when internet surveillance can track them down.

 

It is Written in the Constitution that the U.S. Government Must Secure Citizens’ Welfare:

When the NSA is capable of tracking down criminals and ensuring the safety of American citizens via internet surveillance, the IC is saving lives. Technology is a major benefit to the IC when it can be used to reduce the number of overall deaths caused by criminal activity.

 

National Security Allows Us to Live in a Pluralist Society:

 Could the loss of privacy mean an improved quality of life for minority groups and members of the LGBTQ+ community? When the government has access to citizens’ computers, if successful, they are able to identify xenophobic, racist, and homophobic movements on social media accounts and websites, and then promptly shut them down.With exceptional technological surveillance, the following events might have been prevented:

  • Orlando Shooting
    • Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting on June 12, 2016, inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
  • Minnesota Mosque bombing
    • In 2017, Michael McWhorter, Joe Morris and a third man, Michael Hari, were charged by the U.S. Justice Department for using an explosive device to damage the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota.

 

Cons of the NSA surveilling U.S. citizens:

The Right to Privacy is Protected by Law:

The right to privacy is protected by the 4th Amendment. This means that a person is allowed to verify information that is collected about them and how it may be used against them. However, the NSA is engaging in bulk data collection, through obtaining copies of information transferred via fiber optic cable networks. Is this data collection too close to violating the 4th Amendment?

 

 

Failure is Part of Life:

The goal of the NSA (in terms of technological surveillance) is to save lives by monitoring online criminal activity. What happens when the NSA is given all the opportunities to surveil telecommunications from American fiber optic networks and fail to catch criminals, resulting in catastrophe?  Citizens have lost privacy and nothing was gained from this loss. 

 

Legal channels exist:

When a police officer wants to enter a building and look for evidence of criminal activity,  they need a search warrant. When the undercover cops want to bust a drug cartel, an arrest warrant is issued. However, computer surveillance watches everyone, even if they are not suspected of illegal activity.  68% of American internet users believe that current laws are not protecting people’s online privacy. Using legal channels to investigate suspects only may provide comfort to the aforementioned population. 

 

In Conclusion:

There are pros and cons of the NSA using technology to monitor American internet activity. Because of IC surveillance, lives can be saved in the blink of an eye. However, the authority that has been granted to the NSA is controversial, since many mistakes have been made in the past. Safety and privacy are a basic human rights. Technology is an incredible innovation that has improved and complicated our world. Unfortunately, all three aspects struggle to exist in harmony.

 

Martine Bigos ’22

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/nsa-broke-privacy-rules-thousands-of-times-per-year-audit-finds/2013/08/15/3310e554-05ca-11e3-a07f-49ddc7417125_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fc5fbdc96271

https://www.eff.org/nsa-spying

Does National Security outweigh the right to privacy?

https://www.npr.org/2015/03/02/390245038/ben-franklins-famous-liberty-safety-quote-lost-its-context-in-21st-century

https://constitution.findlaw.com/amendment4.html

https://www.lifewire.com/fiber-optic-cable-817874

https://www.npr.org/2019/01/24/688402478/militia-members-plead-guilty-to-2017-minnesota-mosque-bombing