In 1984, Orwell described the ultimate totalitarian dystopia where the government-controlled every aspect of citizens’ lives and crushed any means of resistance. To achieve this level of control, the ruling government required more than just power, it needed critical information which was used to identify, manipulate, and ultimately destroy any opposition to their ideology. With the rise of complex technologies in the 21st century, it is becoming increasingly common for governments to utilize the possibilities of digital space and identification devices. Using the argument of national security, it has been revealed that the widespread extent of surveillance often violates the privacy of regular citizens. Orwell’s novel became commonly cited as a potential warning about future realities if surveillance technologies were to be abused. Privacy invasion is becoming more commonplace as the United States government maintains several surveillance methods for observation and collection of information on any individual in the country.
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The concept of government surveillance regarding privacy is highly controversial and contentious. It is important to define and establish its parameters to answer the primary question of whether such actions violate privacy and whether it is a matter of control or access (Macnish 417). Theoretical and legal concepts should be examined to provide background on the issue.
Mass surveillance is a close observation of a large group of people or populations. It can be done by government, corporate, and private entities alike. However, most commonly, governments have the resources and capabilities to engage in mass surveillance of a population. A surveillance state is a country where the government openly and deliberately engages in surveillance, spying, and intelligence on its citizens for control and maintaining the power of the current leadership, commonly seen in autocratic nations such as China (Mozur et al.). Meanwhile, privacy is defined as a state of being undisturbed, free from attention. In this context, violation of privacy can be defined in two ways. It is either a loss of control over information initially, or when that information is accessed that demonstrates privacy invasion. Macnish argues that control and privacy can differentiate, since it is neither necessary nor sufficient, while access immediately violates privacy (418). This is important since government agencies often engage in collecting information on a mass scale, but very little is accessed by human beings, only in cases of specific investigations or being targeted by artificial intelligence based on key parameters.
The most common purpose of surveillance that is cited by the government is national security. It is a broad concept that usually entails counterterrorism, counterespionage, and crime prevention or investigation. Interception of vital information regarding planned activities that may harm the safety of the country and its citizens is argued to be necessary, justifying the collection and analysis of information. Proponents of surveillance argue that the loss of privacy is trivial and cannot be abused in Western democratic institutions, while the benefits of surveillance from a security standpoint are numerous. Meanwhile, some autocratic states such as China and over 18 countries that have adopted their technology and methods, use surveillance for some purpose of control. This may range from concepts such as “public opinion guidance” or fundamentally, censorship, to straightforward political repression. Tech-driven authoritarianism, a reflection of real-world control, is essentially a loss of privacy on an industrial scale (Mozur et al.). Despite the dystopian fictionality to the concept, it is becoming a reality and considered to be the future of governance where digital and visual surveillance is the norm.
To set a background for the next section of government surveillance programs, it is important to note that they are usually done within the parameters of the law, albeit it is something that is continuously challenged both publicly and in courts. The most infamous is the Patriot Act, enacted after the attacks of 9/11 which provides the legal means for security agencies to spy on anyone in the United States, citizen or not. Although a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is meant to regulate who gets targeted for surveillance and their information is accessed, the process is largely classified and heavily favors the government. Meanwhile, the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA) gives sweeping powers to the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor any means of communications both domestically and abroad. Its Section 702 statute allows to record and monitor private conversations, including telephone calls (Russell and Waisbord 77).
Any cases such as Amnesty v. Clapper or Wikimedia Foundation v. NSA which attempted to challenge mass surveillance have been voted down by the Supreme Court due to lack of evidence of such surveillance or under the premise of national security (“NSA Surveillance”). There is inherently no transparency or legal due process regarding government surveillance, with the majority of information available coming from leakers such as Snowden. This allows the government entities to potentially abuse the process and violate rights that extend beyond the reasonable defense of national security.
NSA and PRISM
The NSA is the primary agency responsible for surveillance in the United States. It is a federal intelligence agency that has the primary purpose of monitoring, collection, and processing of information worldwide that is used for intelligence and security purposes of the United States. The agency uses various tools, the most well-known of which is PRISM. It is an electronic data collection tool that can request data on any individual from digital entities such as social networks, search engines, and internet providers among others. Although it is unclear how exactly PRISM operates, there have been indicators that the tool either directly accesses or hacks the digital servers for information, despite government assurances that information is requested on a need-to-know basis. NSA collects data in two ways, upstream wiretaps that directly siphon data from telecommunications cables or acquiring information from US providers. The data can be categorized as metadata which is a record of any communications (times, participants, locations) or content, which is the actual data of what was written or said in the digital communications (Kunelius et al. 1-2).
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FBI and CIA
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are both intelligence agencies that use surveillance to conduct their operations. Similar to the NSA, the Patriot Act granted them broad powers of surveillance and investigation of domestic crime and terrorism. This includes wiretaps, access to financial information, grand jury investigations, and personal data, many of these aspects are either private or protected. It should also be noted that the agencies have access to military satellites, video and audio surveillance, and facial recognition databases among some of its tools of identification and monitoring. Furthermore, to promote efficiency and avoid intelligence failings before 9/11, these agencies are encouraged to exchange information with each other (“More About Intelligence Agencies (CIA/DNI) Spying”).
Although highly classified, official statements, academic research, and leaks offer an insight into the effectiveness of surveillance programs. Agencies themselves see surveillance programs as effective although challenging. Intelligence requires aggregate work, with information and contributions coming from multiple sources. Also, it is noted that although information is collected, with proper analysis it holds little value. The most effective and preferred evaluation of surveillance technology is the analyzed product which helps to prevent attacks and hunt down terrorists (Cayford and Pieters 92). Meanwhile, knowledge of programs like PRISM suggests that it is extremely effective at collecting a tremendous amount of data, including inadvertently acquired communication, which is then stored for up to 5 years. Information is scanned by digital systems or can be input by analysts via search terms which then present lists of potential suspect persons or communication exchanges.
Violation of Civil Liberties and Privacy
From a constitutional and legal standpoint, opponents of surveillance argue that it is a violation of the First and Fourth Amendments. The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right to privacy, while the First Amendment concerns communication which includes speaking, associating, accessing, and engaging with information. Certain directives such as Section 702 of FISA are believed to be violating the amendments which are associated with privacy and necessary for the preservation of freedom. Surveillance of digital communication systems violates the right of private association. Meanwhile, the Fourth Amendment is hard to apply to these instances of invasions of privacy, which are small in isolation but result in substantial cumulative effects.
Going back to the concept of privacy within this context of surveillance, the loss of control over information may feel like a violation of privacy while it is not fully so. Although access to information does harm rights that protect privacy, they are not inherently connected. The intelligence agencies often use this argument, that although the actions may harm personal interests, it is not a violation of privacy until that information is accessed. However, an individual losing control of information since it is being intercepted in the surveillance is problematic since it may encompass the very same risks and harms as if privacy was directly violated. The access to information places an individual at the mercy and control of the entity possessing the information who may or may not abuse their position and privacy (Macnish 430). Therefore, while theoretically, a simple vulnerability of having information collected may not be a technical invasion of privacy, it is just as dangerous and inappropriate as if privacy was directly violated.
U.S. government surveillance is extensive and deeply penetrating of American citizens’ information. Privacy is violated and there are no practical safeguards or legal regulatory means to prevent the abuse of power. While national security is vital and surveillance may be justified to some extent, it should be more targeted. Widespread surveillance and its consequence of privacy invasion set a dangerous precedent for the future as human interactions and lives become increasingly digitized. Fundamental human and constitutional rights to privacy should be observed to avoid entering an era of government control and silencing of opposition reflective of 1984.
- Cayford, Michelle, and Wolter Pieters. “The Effectiveness of Surveillance Technology: What Intelligence Officials Are Saying.” The Information Society, vol. 34, no. 2, 2018, pp. 88-103.
- Kunelius, Risto, et al. “The NSA Revelations as a Prism.” Journalism and the NSA Revelations: Privacy, Security and the Press, edited by Adrienne Russell, et al., Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017, pp. 1-22.
- Macnish, Kevin. “Government Surveillance and Why Defining Privacy Matters in a Post-Snowden World.” Journal of Applied Philosophy, vol. 35, no. 2, 2016, pp. 417-432.
- Mozur, Paul, et al. “Made in China, Exported to the World: The Surveillance State.” The New York Times, 2019, Web.
- “More About Intelligence Agencies (CIA/DNI) Spying.” ACLU, Web.
- Russell, Adrienne, and Silvio Waisbord. “News Flashpoints: The Snowden Revelations in the United States.” Journalism and the NSA Revelations: Privacy, Security and the Press, edited by Adrienne Russell, et al., Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017, pp. 69-90.