Despite Edward Snowden’s revelations in June of the NSA PRISM program monitoring the American public’s telephone calls as well as communications on Google, Facebook, Skype and others, many probably quietly suspected as much. I mean, really, the technology has existed for decades. Heck, the British may be even better at it than us. Numerous folks in the conspiracy theory realm have “known” about domestic spying all along. Hollywood and fiction have certainly been fueling our suspicions of this for years; note the Mel Gibson film Conspiracy Theory and George Orwell’s novel 1984. In fact, sales of Orwell’s book have skyrocketed in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal.
Publicly, President Obama and George Bush, Jr. have come out in defense of the use of such surveillance. And NSA National Security Director Keith Alexander claims that programs have helped thwart more than 50 “potential terrorist threats.” On the other side of the argument, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said shortly after the Snowden news story was released that government collection of citizen data was a “massive invasion of Americans’ privacy.” Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke the Snowden NSA revelations, told Fox News on July 2 that another bombshell NSA story is on the way. We shall see.
So what exactly is “privacy” anymore anyway? The academic definition from Merriam-Webster is “the quality or state of being apart from company or observation;” or “freedom from unauthorized intrusion <one’s right to privacy>.” Regarding the government illegally collecting personal information (invasion of privacy), the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Of course, in this digital age much if not most of our “effects” are housed in the cloud and apparently easily accessed by the NSA. A July 1, 2013 article on the MIT Technology Review site states:
“The majority of our communications are now delivered and stored by third-party services and cloud providers. E-mail, documents, phone calls, and chats all go through Internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Skype, or wireless carriers like Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint. And while distributed in nature, the physical infrastructure underlying the World Wide Web relies on key chokepoints which the government can, and is, monitoring.”
The MIT article also states that the cost of the NSA programs revealed by Snowden amounted to roughly $140 million during the period 2002-2006. This is a mere drop in the bucket to the NSA’s $10 billion annual budget. And as technology progresses over the next few years, the price will get even cheaper to keep tabs on us.
“Once the cost of surveillance reaches zero we will be left with our outdated laws as the only protection. Whatever policy actions are taken as a result of the recent leaks should address the fact that technical barriers such as cost and speed offer dwindling protection from unwarranted government surveillance domestically and abroad.”
Privacy, indeed, is a broad term and invasion of privacy is subject to just as much philosophical speculation as to meaning and degree. And how are privacy and freedom interrelated? Can there be privacy without freedom or freedom without privacy? These are hard questions to consider, but considered they must be if we are to come to terms with what is happening each and every time we make a phone call, send an email, make an online purchase, or video chat with a friend in another state or overseas.
I certainly don’t have the answers, but I welcome reader thoughts – that is of course if you’re comfortable putting them out there.
Kiffin Hope+ is the Social Media Community Manager for ALPS. He runs the ALPS 411 law blog, working with contributors from around the country. His posts cover tech, cyber security threats, and smartphones.