Surveillance and the Snowden Effect

by Jelena Vićić

In light of the recent intelligence hemorrhage of the National Security Agency, numerous thinkers have been cited on the tradeoff between security and privacy due to government surveillance. Their illumining quotations and metaphors have become commonplace in the public sphere since the story broke in June 2013, when Edward Snowden leaked top-secret information.

The Snowden affair showed that Orwellian references to “Big Brother” and Benthamian panopticon – his circular prison allowing one observer to watch all inmates from one vantage point without their knowing when, immortalized in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (Surveiller et punir: La naissacence de la Prison) are still relevant. Without a doubt, Edward Snowden was the harbinger of the news that no one liked hearing: the United States government has been systematically spying on its own citizens. And while the public opinion was divided between those who consider Snowden a traitor and those who think he is a hero, the American government reportedly suffered “long-lasting and irreversible damage to US national security” according to James R. Clapper, US Director of National Intelligence, and is undergoing a set of investigations ordered by President Barack Obama.

The most important aspect of the Snowden effect is that it shifted the issue of surveillance to the focus of the public and Senate debate in the United States and the world. While government surveillance has been more intense since 9/11, the public paid little to no attention to the government practices. However, in the recent years, due to the ever-developing information technologies, more players entered the surveillance game and joined the US government in scrutinizing its subjects. Thus, the federal government expanded its array of powers in order to monitor and protect its citizens, as well as its national security interests.

Under the Cybersecurity, Terrorism, and Nuclear Weapons heading of the National Security Strategy 2013, the “ability to protect the American public as best as possible rests on the cooperation between the private sector and the government.” Moreover, the statement reads that the US government is committed to providing opportunities for private data brokers to share sensitive information “with the government in order to prevent future attacks.”

According to the BBC, materials leaked by Snowden in June 2013 allege that the US has been conducting illegal surveillance of its own and foreign citizens. The scandal began to unravel on June 5, when The Guardian published a story by Glen Greenwald, reporting that the NSA is compiling phone records on millions of Verizon customers under a top-secret court order. On the next day, the Washington Post and The Guardian broke the news that the NSA has direct access to the servers of companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft via the PRISM program. In the days that followed, more stories alleging suspicious government practices were leaked to the press.

Although surveillance of society is not new as a concept, it is still worth addressing why surveillance is potentially bad, why it makes people uncomfortable, and why governments do it.

According to Merriam Webster dictionary, surveillance is “close watch kept over someone or something.” Ever since 9/11, surveillance has been made one of the main tactics employed to counter terrorism. A month and a half after the attacks, the US Congress passed the Patriot Act and introduced a number of changes to the procedure of pursuing suspected terrorists. According to the Concerned Citizens Against the Patriot Act website, the primary criticisms are that the Act is unconstitutional, given that it provides for government searches and seizures without establishing the probable cause and allows government to indefinitely jail citizens without a trial, allows for government to monitor religious and political institutions without suspecting criminal activity – among others. The latter violate the Fourth, Sixth, and First Amendments of the US Constitution respectively.

According to the NSA website, the agency was established with the mission to lead “the U.S. Government in cryptology that includes both Signals Intelligence (SIGNIT) and Information Assurance (IA) products and services, and enables Computer Network Operations in order to gain a decision advantage for the Nation and our allies under all circumstances.” In order to fulfill its mission, the NSA engages in collecting (including by secretive means), processing, analyzing, producing and disseminating SIGNIT information and data for foreign and counterintelligence purposes. Thus, although its means are clandestine, the NSA does not shy away from the fact that spying is part of the job.

In response to the criticism of the organization, Army General Keith B. Alexander, Director of NSA, said the following before the House of Representative Intelligence Committee, “It is much more important for this country that we defend this nation and take the beatings than it is to give up a program that would result in this nation being attacked.”

In the interconnected world, a state is contested not only by its adversaries, but also by its allies. According to the National Security Strategy 2013, “the United States must prepare for a multilateral world where, while retaining our military, economic, and cultural preeminence, we may be challenged by both our allies and adversaries.” For example, according to Al Jazeera, one of the Snowden leaks confirmed that the US and the UK spied on other countries during the 2009 G20 meeting (in order to gain trade advantage) which proves that the National Security Strategy was based on practice.

The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow a single watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether they are being watched or not. - Wikipedia

The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow a single watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether they are being watched or not. – Wikipedia

“Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” reads Google’s mission statement. As mentioned previously, Google is one of the companies that cooperated with the NSA through the PRISM program. Given that as of 2011, more than 60 percent of Internet users use Google for their searches, the possible amount of information stored on US citizens and nationals of those countries the US is interested in, is alarming. The main problem with companies that share information with the government, such as Google or Yahoo, is that people do not know exactly when they are monitored. The situation closely resembles Bentham’s ‘panopticon’ and it can lead to self-censorship detrimental to any democratic society.

“The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change,” said Snowden in his Guardian interview. Obama is attempting to make the NSA more accountable following the Snowden challenge. However, increasing NSA accountability, and thus more transparency can have a negative effect on the job they are trying to do, given that secrecy is crucial to the practices in which this security agency engages . In the end, one might want to keep in mind the perennial words of Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

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