Exploring the NSA controversy

What this post is about:
 The NSA surveillance controversy raises many questions – from our concept of “security” and the role of secrecy in government to problematic connections between business and government and the role of whistleblowers.  A leading survey suggest that most Americans trust surveillance powers in the hands of officials whose politics they share.  But do they consider that those surveillance powers could then also be used by their political opponents?  What would happen if ordinary people actually had a chance to thoroughly learn about and examine diverse approaches to these issues?  I offer links to some thought-provoking articles.

The National Security Administration (NSA) is in the news.

Before sharing my thoughts on a particular oddity in this controversy, I want to share links to informative and thought-provoking articles I’ve seen about it recently.

  • This article compares the threat of terrorism to numerous other statistically worse threats which don’t inspire us to give up privacy or freedom.
  • This long piece reviews the intriguing history of the NSA, the empire built by its leader, the challenges it faces, and the ongoing expansion of its technology and mission.
  • This essay proposes that the NSA’s actual threats to our freedoms are not a big as most critics claim.
  • This novel perspective suggests that the real threat of metadata surveillance comes not so much from how it invades our privacy, but more from the way it can promote conformity, concentrate wealth, and create institutional bias against certain people.
  • This article explores the many troubling links between the security state, big business, and Wall Street.
  • Considering the example of whistleblower Edward Snowden and others, this essay describes the “asymmetrical” power of courage backed by truth compared to more established but less courageous powers based on coercion and secrecy.
  • This Wikipedia entry gets into specifics about one of the main NSA surveillance programs currently under scrutiny.

But of all of the articles I’ve read so far – and in light of them – I find myself most fascinated by this public opinion poll.  The overview of this national survey by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post, conducted June 6-9, 2013, among 1004 adults, says that

“a majority of Americans – 56% – say the National Security Agency’s (NSA) program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism, though a substantial minority – 41% – say it is unacceptable. And while the public is more evenly divided over the government’s monitoring of email and other online activities to prevent possible terrorism, these views are largely unchanged since 2002, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”

That in itself surprised me because during the last week I’ve been inundated with messages from liberals, conservatives, greens, and libertarians all expressing outrage about the NSA’s surveillance programs.  This broad range of protest suggested to me the possibility of a transpartisan movement against those surveillance systems.

But digging a bit deeper I found more to this story.  Although there are some differences between NSA surveillance programs under the Bush and Obama administrations, there’s a fascinating correlation between the public’s responses to those programs in 2006 and 2013, with a little over a majority supporting them in both cases.  Deeper yet, what I find most thought-provoking is the difference between Republicans and Democrats:  Democrats were more opposed to NSA surveillance during Bush’s administration and Republicans are more opposed to NSA surveillance during Obama’s administration.  Here are the specifics from the survey report:

“Today, only about half of Republicans (52%) say it is acceptable for the NSA to obtain court orders to track phone call records of millions of Americans to investigate terrorism. In January 2006, fully 75% of Republicans said it was acceptable for the NSA to investigate suspected terrorists by listening in on phone calls and reading emails without court approval.”

“Democrats now view the NSA’s phone surveillance as acceptable by 64% to 34%. In January 2006, by a similar margin (61% to 36%), Democrats said it was unacceptable for the NSA to scrutinize phone calls and emails of suspected terrorists.”

So what the public seems to be saying is that they are in favor of surveillance by people they agree with and against surveillance by people whose politics they don’t like.

While it is natural to trust our own politicians more than the other guy’s, this logic fails to take into account that the machinery of surveillance, once created, can be used by anyone in power.  Knowledge – especially knowledge that can shape people’s opinions and behavior – gives power.  Power-hungry people in all sectors and all parties readily use their knowledge of others to manipulate them (see, for example, http://slate.me/11cYxIB/).

If we delight in the fact that our allies have such power, we should pause to think about what will happen when that power is no longer in the hands of our allies but in the hands of our enemies.  This should especially concern us all because Increasing crises – combined with the increasing power of both power elites and small groups and organizations – to put the NSA’s surveillance machinery in the hands of increasingly extreme politicians.

So this issue is not so simple.  I find myself again wondering what a panel of 20-50 ordinary citizens chosen by lottery would conclude if they had a few weeks to carefully review a full spectrum of opinions and information about this issue and to deliberate together on what might best be done about it.  What if they seriously considered – together – the trade-offs of various approaches to security and privacy, and told us what they came up with?

I suspect they might propose solutions we don’t currently find in the surveys, political posturing, and punditry we see and hear all around us today.  I bet what they say would make a lot more sense.


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