The NSA are doing more harm than good to everyone and only recently has there been anything done to stop them. In their attempts to keep the United States secure, they have overstepping their boundaries in every major country in the world, including the United States. The American government is built on a system of checks and balances but there is nothing balancing the power of the NSA. The court that is supposed to keep the NSA in check, approved over 2000 applications for surveillence in 2012 with no rejections. The NSA watches over ally countries of the United States as well as the American public which is unneccessary to its security as well as an intrusion of privacy. Starting with Edward Snowden’s revelations, reform for more transparency has begun but there is much more that we as Americans can do to move this process along.
Starting in June of 2013, Edward Snowden, a former NSA contracter, began releasing documents that were previously classified from the American public about the NSA, their capabilities and their actions. He was the spark that ignited the controversy that still continues on today. Because of him, other whistleblowers have emerged with information of their own but due to the shear volume of information Snowden has released, he remains the driving force for reform of the NSA.
The reasons Snowden released the information was for the benefit of all. More specifically, for the privacy of all, and to protect us from living in a state of surveillance and fear. In an article on Forbes by Kashmir Hill, she quotes Snowden on these reasons. He believes “the greatest danger to our freedom and way of life comes from the reasonable fear of omniscient State powers” and that his “sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” His actions match his words and intent for the betterment of the system. He gave up a well paying job and his own safety to release this information so it is only fair that we trust this man and accept that his intentions are good.
The information Snowden first released was the FISA court aquisitions of call records from Verizon. It was important that this was the first information released because this was American information. Had it been information on NSA activity in Germany–which was revealed later–the uproar would not have been as loud. Many people would have rationalized it as protection for our country. But telling America that its own government was listening to its phone calls hit a soft spot. In addition, we were told about PRISM: a secret program that has collected information from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple. Not only were our phone calls being listened to but everything we did online was being monitered. This was the first time that most Americans had been made aware of this.
Edward Snowden’s unveiling of information has led others like him to also come out with information on the NSA. He stated that he wanted to “to embolden others to step forward.” William Binney has also released a great amount of information about the NSA. As a former employee of a fairly high position, he interacted with imporant information every day. He states, “I think the place needs a total lobotomy. I think they need to scrap it and start again.” He had been with the NSA for a long time and understand now that what they are doing is wrong. He is an experienced opinion and believes that the NSA needs a fresh start.
To understand how the NSA is supposed to be protecting us, we must know what they are allowed to moniter and what they are actually monitering. We as the American public have come to imagine the NSA as the omnipotent Big Brother figure listening to our every conversation and looking at our every email. And it is not an incorrect interpretation of the NSA at all. They have no limits to their power which allows them to access all the information our lives on a whim.
What the NSA is allowed to moniter can be summarized in a single word: Everything. Absolutely nothing is off limits for the NSA to know, domestically and internationally. Before the NSA is allowed to start snooping around for whatever they feel like, they must first go through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, phone companies and other third parties are required to disclose information as long as it is relevant to international terrorism, counterespionage, or foreign intelligence investigation. Although those topics are important matters to the American public, their relevancy may seem subjective in some cases. There is nothing stopping them from just simply claiming that someone is suspicious and relevant to a foreign intelligence investigation. Their claims of relevance to international terrorism may be as relevant as random airport searches are “random”. In some cases, the NSA is not even clear about what they intend on doing but the FISC approves it anyway. They hide as much from us as they possibly can. In addition to unclear applications for aquisition, the providers of the information are held under “gag-orders” to not disclose the release or the use of this information. What they are doing is legal as NPR states because there has been no “‘spying’ on Americans without a court order” but such a lenient court allows for flexible legality.
Although we know most of our personal information is harmless, private information should still remain private. The FISC needs to be stricter with what is classified as terroristic and the amount of information and context that the required to approve an application for surveillance. What the NSA is doing now is unnacceptable and something needs to be done.
The NSA’s primary job is to keep us, the American public, safe. The heads of our government vehemently claim that the NSA’s spying has prevented 54 potential terrorist attacks as their big claim to legitimacy but the truth is that much of the information they collected from phones and the internet activity provided little to no value in preventing these attacks. What the NSA is doing is wasting their time and invading our privacy.
Defenders of the NSA have obstructed themselves from the truth by repeating loose claims of justice and forgiveness. There are five big bubbles that Cindy Cohn and Nadia Kayyali from eff.org are trying burst:
The NSA has stopped 54 terrorist attacks with mass spying.David Sterman, Peter Bergen from newsamerica.org give some figures to help us understand what kind of information the NSA has collected and how useful it truly is.
“the controversial bulk collection of American telephone metadata, which includes the telephone numbers that originate and receive calls, as well as the time and date of those calls but not their content, under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, appears to have played an identifiable role in initiating, at most, 1.8 percent of these cases. NSA programs involving the surveillance of non-U.S. persons outside of the United States under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act played a role in 4.4 percent of the terrorism cases we examined, and NSA surveillance under an unidentified authority played a role in 1.3 percent of the cases we examined.”
Cahall et al. describe the information appropriately as bulk. The NSA collects such a massive amount of information so that it can sit around and do nothing.
The claim that, “collecting call detail records isn’t a big deal” is misguiding making it a weak defense for the NSA. Officials try to brush off the severity of this data by saying that it isn’t very useful. This data is not useful and that is why the NSA collects so much of it. If they were telling us the truth, the collection of this data would be a complete waste of time and if they are lying to us, the data must have some other purpose if so little of it is being used to prevent terrorist attacks.
The NSA and its defenders claim that the power and information they have is use appropriately and not abused for other means. With the amount of power NSA employees have over their fellow Americans, it can take Facebook stalking to an entirely different level. Some NSA employees have not been able to resist the allure of knowing the private information of people they may care about and spied on people for their own personal gain. There have been reports of these employees monitoring ex-spouses.
Defenders think that “invading privacy is okay because it’s done to prevent terrorist attacks.” Because the surveillance is done electronically, thinking about it in a physical way emphasizes how serious of a violation to everyday life it truly is. By no one’s standards would it be acceptable for the government to enter our homes looking for private information for “preventative measures.” That same attitude should be applied to the means of acquisition the NSA uses.
Finally, the loosest claim of all is that there is plenty of oversight from Congress, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and Agency Watchdogs. The process that the NSA must go through to start surveillance on a certain party or aquire a specific set of information requires them to make an application that must past through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court which as average American citizens, we would hope is strict about what information the NSA is allowed to get their hands on. The truth is that the FISC approves of almost anything that NSA asks for without even knowing the full context of the request. The court’s track record show that it has “denied just 10 applications, and modified several dozen, while approving more than 15,000” in 11 years. In most recent years, FISC denied none.
Since the original revelation, Snowden has released a vast amount of information about the NSA that ranges from surveillance of many of the worlds countries including England, China, Brazil, and just about any other major country. More documents and information is being released regularly. There has been some reform because of the release of this information. Investigations of mass surveillance are being conducted in the US, Europe, and Brazil. Bill proposals for greater transparency a making their way through the government processes and some FISA court opinions have even been ruled unconstitutional. In September of 2015, Congress passed a reform measure that takes away the NSA’s ability to collect the phone records of Americans. In June of 2015, Congress also passed amendments to the USA Freedom Act which limits the access to records that are relevant to a national security investigation.
We are making progress against the tyranical NSA but there is more that can be done. Congress has begun approving of reform bills that have changed what the NSA is allowed to do with decisions in favor 62 to 32. We as Americans need to continue voting for Congress members who care about keeping the NSA in check. We need to continue fighting for a more private America.
“DO NSA’S BULK SURVEILLANCE PROGRAMS STOP TERRORISTS?” newamerica.org, Bailey Cahall, et al., 13 January 2014. 4 December 2015
The Top 5 Claims That Defenders of the NSA Have to Stop Making to Remain Credible Electronic Frontier Foundation, Cindy Cohn and Nadia Kayyali, 2 June 2014. 4 December 2015.
“Why NSA IT Guy Edward Snowden Leaked Top Secret Documents” Forbes, Kashmir Hill, 10 June 2013. 4 December 2015.
“Revelations” edwardsnowden.com. 4 December 2015.
“William Binney” PBS. 4 December 2015.
“Are They Allowed to Do That? A Breakdown of Selected Government Surveillance Programs” Brennan Center For Justice. 3 December 2015
“5 Things To Know About The NSA’s Surveillance Activities” NPR.org Krishnadev Calamur, 23 October 2013. 3 December 2015