National Consumers League

The NSA scandal: balancing safety and liberty

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
On June 6, Edward Snowden leaked classified information about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) collection of massive amounts of data over the last decade. First came the revelation that the secretive agency demanded that telecom providers hand over droves of phone conversation metadata, including the telephone numbers of those making and receiving calls and how long those calls lasted. Later we learned that the NSA also requested online data collected from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and others. Some have called Snowden a hero, others a traitor.

The U.S. government has charged Snowden with espionage. Snowden, a 29-year-old high school drop-out (he later earned his GED), had been hired by an outsourced government contractor and working with sensitive NSA data since 2009. His release of the classified information has not only raised serious questions about the legality of such data collection and what this means for people living in a free, democratic society such as ours, but also has muddled international relations with China and Russia, both countries in which he has appeared since fleeing. Neither Russia nor Hong Kong were willing  to extradite  him  to the US. Much of the media’s focus over the last few weeks has revolved around Snowden’s whereabouts, but these revelations about NSA’s actions have also started a more sobering discussion about what role the government plays in both protecting the American people from terrorist attacks and preserving civil liberties. Polls taken since the disclosure of NSA’s policies show Americans are divided on this issue.

PEW poll reported that 56 percent of Americans think the NSA’s tracking of “millions of Americans” phone records is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism. Conversely, in a CBS poll that asked about collecting phone records of “ordinary Americans” only 38 percent of respondents found the practice acceptable. Due to the lack of transparency in the NSA program, Americans are unclear how useful such data collection is to ensuring our safety and security. Both the Obama Administration and Gen. Keith B. Alexander, head of the NSA, claim the programs have thwarted dozens, perhaps as many as 50, terror plots. This number might prove more persuasive if the agency would reveal more details about these terrorist activities, but they’ve instead played the “trust us, we’re here to protect you” card and are reluctant to disclose information about the actual plots or the tools used to stop those plots. That leaves many Americans skeptical about the validity of such statements. Could these terrorist attacks have been stopped by other means? Were these terrorist attacks stopped by other means?

One strategy that both protects security but seeks to preserve our privacy and freedom of association is being pursued by a handful of US Senators. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has introduced the FISA Accountability and Privacy Protection Act of 2013. This bipartisan bill aims to bolster existing privacy safeguards and require greater oversight, transparency, and accountability in connection with the government’s expansive domestic surveillance powers. Government plays an important role in all of our lives in acting for the common good; state and local governments were established to do the things communities benefit from: ensure fire and police protection, build and maintain schools, hospitals, water treatment plants and sewer systems. But when our federal government collects billions of pieces of information from the phone records and Internet data of all its citizens with a vague explanation that this is needed for “national security,” that’s a fishing expedition and should raise serious concerns about privacy.

Perhaps most of us don’t feel like we’re living in a police state, but when you stop to think about the ways in which our privacy has been invaded, it’s scary. Many cities, including where I live in Washington DC, have literally hundreds of cameras deployed all across town operating 24/7. GPS tracking devices are ubiquitous. DUI checkpoints are common and the cops can take your blood if they suspect you’ve been drinking, and now, according to the Supreme Court, if you get stopped for a minor infraction your DNA can be loaded into a database. As one USA Today commentator put it, “There must be a balance between legitimate security and overbearing government.” We have indeed seen a steady erosion of privacy since 9/11.

The passage of the Patriot Act was a reaction to the attack on the United States and was just the opening salvo. And what has that gotten us? More protection from terrorists? I’m skeptical. Why did the FBI miss the Boston Marathon bombers when the Russian government warned them about the older Tsarnaev brother, saying he was dangerous? The CIA missed Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan’s relationship with terrorist groups. Not to mention that there were many red flags that our intelligence agencies missed before the 9/11 attack, such as young Saudi men living isolated lives but getting flight training, traveling from the United States to Osama Bin Laden’s training camps. In America, there exists a generation of young people who are inured to this loss of liberty, loss of privacy and the difficulty getting these protections back once they’ve been lost. As Benjamin Franklin said “Any people that would give up liberty for a little temporary safety deserves neither liberty nor safety.” Ronald Reagan, 200 years later, echoed the same: “Concentrated power has always been the enemy of liberty.”