(from the January issue)
By Vishal Narayanaswamy
In recent months, the newspaper The Guardian and whistleblower Edward Snowden have revealed that the United States’ National Security Agency, or NSA, has been conducting massive covert surveillance operations on both the domestic and international fronts. From collecting information on Americans’ phone calls and emails to allegedly wiretapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, the NSA has received much criticism for its activities. Although the Obama administration defends the NSA’s programs as crucial to national security and a recent ruling by a New York District Judge declared the collection of phone metadata legal, the NSA’s activities remain unnecessary, counterproductive, and deeply troubling.
The NSA’s surveillance program is largely unnecessary because of its limited effect on counter-terror efforts. Although the NSA has stated that current surveillance programs have thwarted 54 terrorist attacks, recent Congressional testimony revealed that the program has only been crucial to stopping one terrorist-related incident in which a San Diego cab driver transferred a small amount of money to the militant group al-Shabaab. Furthermore, NSA coordination with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in stopping drug cartels has limited effectiveness due to the DEA’s own vast database of telecommunication records, thus eliminating much of the need for NSA information . Given the disproportional loss of civil liberties, limited threat of terrorism, and general sense of fear and distrust of the NSA, such surveillance programs are unnecessary today.
Furthermore, the NSA’s programs are actually counterproductive in relation to their intended goals. In seeking out targets by using typical internet surveillance or exploiting loopholes in anonymous networks like TOR, the NSA only drives terrorist and criminal networks deeper into the internet- regions known as the “dark web”- that have become increasingly harder to monitor or penetrate. Reuters News also reports that NSA coordination with the Drug Enforcement Agency has led to increased government corruption, as DEA agents have been ordered to conceal the investigative process of joint operations by creating “false paper trails”, undermining both government transparency and a fair justice system. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the US cloud computing sector is also projected to lose 22 to 35 billion dollars in the next three years because of consumer distrust of NSA involvement with technological firms. On the international front, the NSA’s surveillance of our allies, such as France, Germany, and Mexico, only serves to perpetuate distrust and dissuade cooperation in joint operations such as the War on Terror.
Perhaps most shockingly, the NSA’s activities have long term impacts on the American public that are deeply troubling. According to the LA Times, after the NSA’s surveillance activities were revealed by Edward Snowden, sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 skyrocketed, reflecting the general sense of anxiety and fear in the American public. This sense of fear, according to the Harvard Law Review, extends into a long-term deterioration of democracy known as “the chilling effect”. Essentially, the social power of NSA surveillance can lead to the suppression and coercion of minority views, thereby curtailing and “chilling” free speech and violating the Constitution’s First Amendment. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently revealed 22 cases in which NSA has chilled free speech, including cases of Islamic organizations, privacy watchdogs, and pro-marijuana groups limiting public activity for fear of government persecution or scrutiny. In the long term, such suppression of free speech- even out of the perception of government overreach- can limit popular involvement in elections and the democratic process, resulting in a greatly disconnected and dysfunctional American public and government.
The future of NSA surveillance remains in a legal tossup today, as judicial rulings across the country are mixed as to whether the NSA’s activities are constitutional. Given the numerous harms of NSA surveillance, it is vital that the courts, Congress, and the American people ensure that the lines between liberty and security remain clearly defined.
Vishal Narayanaswamy (’15) is a junior and regular contributor to The Sword & Shield.