Long before Angela Merkel’s outrage over her cell phone made international news, it’s been a sobering fact that attempts within the United States at discussing the NSA’s surveillance programs far too often devolve into the same fascism vs. terrorism argument. One side advocates for the government’s right to intrude so it can defend us from extremists, while the other, more popular side claims that we are now all living in a contemporary version of George Orwell’s novel, 1984; mainly due to the presence of modern day bureaucracies that engage in espionage.
But given that the overwhelming majority of people neither wish to be blown up in a terrorist attack, or live in an Orwellian dystopia, focusing on such an ultimatum gets us no closer to solving the fundamental issue of reconciling national defense with the constitutional right to privacy. More important still, the polarization doesn’t result in any changes in behavior from the NSA.
One popular trend has to fixate much of the blame on the executive branch, be it Obama after the work of the ‘whistle blowers,’ or George Bush after the Patriot Act was signed. Not to say that they don’t share some responsibility for escalating spying programs, but the people who are working at the NSA and advising executive incumbents are not subject to presidential term limits. Blaming the president is often just an opportunity for people to vent outrage than it is a true examination of what specific individuals and practices within the greater intelligence community should be limited or redirected.
Heavy skepticism from Americans about the government is often also counterproductive and creates an imbalance of awareness. We rarely hear the same arguments about privacy directed at private companies and it’s hard to take many people’s fears of government spying seriously when similar acts in the private sector cause little concern. From cell phone providers to social media sites, many private institutions have cooperated with either the NSA or online advertisers by sharing the private information of American citizens.
Apple’s new iPhone 5s with its finger-scanning password has already created the world’s largest database of human fingerprints. The amount of information that Google alone has on any given individual from their online searches is massive. Google Earth has enough data on homes and businesses to cause a great deal of worry about who should have rights to private information. Where is the public outcry towards them? Much of it is arguably masked by the fact that for all the fear that Americans have about their privacy, many are willingly publicizing intimate details about their private lives anyway via Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites.
The elevation of individuals such as Bradley Manning, or Edward Snowden, either as heroes or as villains can also be problematic. Both men had access to a massive amount of intelligence files, mainly due to a heavy effort by American intelligence agencies since 2001 to share their information with one another more efficiently after their failure to do so partly allowed the 9/11 attacks to occur. This allowed easy access for these men to forward classified files from many agencies, not just the NSA, to journalistic outlets or sites like Wikileaks, which then shot them out into the public eye.
Truthfully, it’s hard to say what’s worse: the lack of national discussion about how to preserve the right to privacy in the 21st century had the documents not been leaked, or the crushing blow America has taken diplomatically as a result of these leaks. This blow would’ve been equally felt by Russia, China, or any EU member, had someone in one of their agencies leaked information from their intelligence communities. The irony that Edward Snowden, a man who despises government spying, would take up asylum in a country like Russia is another absurdity that seems to go fairly unnoticed. Granted, it likely wasn’t his first choice.
Massive leaks are not a solution to our current problems. Nor is the false ultimatum of choosing between national security with fascism or a democracy with vulnerability to terrorism. But the actions of recent ‘whistle blowers’ certainly are an indicator of what will continue to happen if the government does not respond to concerns about its spying programs. There is much hope that if the discussion about reconciling privacy rights with national defense finds its way off of the newsstands and into courtrooms and legislative bodies, citizens and lawmakers will be able to preserve privacy rights in the face of all the technology that threatens it. To make that happen, people have to be more than outraged. They have to know what specific changes they actually want.