Government Surveillance

The idea of mass “surveillance” was once limited to spy movies and George Orwell novels, yet today, in part thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations, surveillance is understood to be a widespread phenomenon that is part of daily life. Government surveillance, especially by the United States, pertains not just to enemies of the state, but to its very citizens as well. Angus West introduces 17 of these revelations thanks to Snowden (West 2013) and I wish to connect them to some of Neil Richards points in The Dangers of Surveillance (Richards 2013) here.


1) Can you hear me now?

According to documents leaked by Snowden, the Obama Administration “enabled the National Security Agency to collect caller information” from Verizon, ordering the company to hand over call records, and had similar relationships with AT&T and BellSouth (West 2013). This “invasion of privacy” was dubbed so by the American people, who were also concerned by the legality of such actions, especially since the U.S. Constitution affords several protections against “unwarranted searches and seizures” and against punishment due to freely sharing ideas (the First and Fourth Amendments). “Despite these protections” though, Richards argues that “courts lack the tools to enforce them” (Richards 2013, p. 1943).

Unfortunately, “the general principle under which American law operates is that surveillance is legal unless forbidden” (Richards 2013, p. 1942).Richards excellently points out that individual rights’ to protect themselves against privacy intrusion is limited. Most courts rest on the ability to prove privacy has been invaded, not just as speculation that it could be invaded, which is often difficult to prove.

This intrusion of the U.S. government into citizens’ personal lives, as well as private companies information & business dealings also highlights a greater problem that “surveillance transcends the public/private divide” (Richards 2013, p. 1935). Not only does such government intrusion & surveillance violate individuals’ privacy, it also leads to greater questions of the power the government has to demand access to private companies’ information and data.


16) “Dishfire” LOL

Elaborating merely on the revelation that the NSA collects phone records from major telecommunications companies, The Guardian also reported that the NSA can collect as much as 200 million text messages a day, using that information to pinpoint locations, extract contacts lists as well as financial transactions information. Not only did the NSA collect this information, but it also reportedly shared access with the United Kingdom’s intelligence arms (West 2013).

As Richards argues, “surveillance is primarily about power, but it is also about personhood” (Richards 2013, p. 1937). Though acts of espionage against foreign diplomats and powerful personnel, such as surveillance of EU members or at international submits, is outrageous, it isn’t necessarily unwarranted. As German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger pointed out “this recalls the methods used by enemies during the Cold War” (West 2013).

Yet such actions against a nations’ citizens without being prompted by a clear threat to national security, “affects the power balance between individuals and those who are watching” (Richards 2013, p. 1945). The fact that text messages – 200 million of them – can be collected in mass and then shared with a foreign government, seems to be almost a clear invasion and violation of individual rights. The U.S. government’s job is less so to share illegally-obtained information with another government, but is more so to protect the privacy of its citizens’ communications – whether those communications are relevant on a broader scale, or those text messages say “Wyd shawty?”



6 thoughts on “Government Surveillance

  1. Hi Meghan,
    Your second point made think of what is the difference between democratic governments and the authoritarian governments if both of them violate the basic human rights, only the first one do it in secret, and the later one do it publicly. The involvement of US government in this dirty work with foreign intelligence is evident that the national security is not the only purpose of surveillance. In fact, it is a competition to gain more power, and in today’s era of the Internet, whoever has more information he absolutely has more power.


  2. I agree with your opening statement on the use of spying in movies as a fictional event that could never be feasible or possible in real life…but it is. One of the main reasons why the government was so upset about Snowden was because, on some level, they knew that what they were doing wasn’t ethically or morally sound. The invasion of our privacy, for our protection, is an argument they use too often without thinking about what their true motives are. I also think that ties into your point on the government intrusion and violation of individuals’ privacy. The ability to demand access to our information and date is scary. I don’t necessarily believe Snowden was a traitor, but I also think I slept much better at night not thinking about how much spying the government is doing on me.


  3. Similarly to my comment to Osama, yea I can’t imagine the NSA has any interest in all this data they’re collecting. Why do they want us to feel paranoid about our “wyd shawty?” messages. It creates a chilling effect and doesn’t keep us safe. It’s like torture in a way. It seems effective until you challenge them to explain if it ever works. There’s been no instances of the data being useful in the case of a terrorist attack or so on.


  4. Pingback: Blog post 12: Comments – New Media & Me

  5. I’m glad you mentioned the difference between those of us from a nation where we don’t expect surveillance and those who accept it as a matter of course. If you watch the movie I recommended, “The Lives of Others,” I think you’ll recognize a third case, where people don’t accept it and yet they are powerless to stop it.


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