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?”