We live in an age of heightened concerns about terrorism and public safety. The events of 9/11, the constant threat of future terrorist plots and mass shootings and public bombings have put both the American people and government on high alert. Some of the government's responses have included development of the Department of Homeland Security and terrorist threat level systems (Hiranandani, 2011). Other efforts have included intense, and oftentimes undercover, surveillance of the activities of everyday citizens. This is particularly true regarding cell phone conversations, email exchanges and web-based activities.
Recent news has highlighted that the National Security Agency (NSA) has used thousands of analysts to listen to domestic phone calls and monitor emails and text messages without the consent or knowledge of the American people (Barrett, Ballhaus & Aylward, 2013). The NSA acknowledges these practices and argues that court authorization is not always necessary; they also point out that there are numerous cases where such surveillance has stopped terrorist attacks and help ensure public safety. However, many feel that this is still a violation of the privacy of everyday citizens (Bailey, 2013). This debatable topic is the focus of this paper.
A former NSA insider named Edward Snowden recently made headlines by blowing the whistle on the secret practices of government surveillance, pointing out that most activities are poorly regulated and that what is really meant to protect the public can at times cause more harm than good (Barrett, Ballhaus & Aylward, 2013). Snowden served as a former NSA infrastructure analyst. He claims that NSA surveillance practices often target those who are in actuality innocent and therefore the surveillance efforts pose constitution problems. In recent weeks, he has shared highly classified NSA program details with the press including the practice of intercepting and wiretapping phone lines. According to Snowden, his disclosures are an effort "to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them" (Barrett, Ballhaus & Aylward, 2013). It is now known that a classified NSA program called NUCLEON is often used to intercept phone calls and route spoken words to a central database (Bailey, 2013). So far, the government has not offered any public estimates of how many times this has taken place, what activities and words may trigger concern or any other NUCLEON details.
It is estimated that the NSA has the ability to record endless domestic and international phone calls and reference them for future use (Pulliam & Rothfield, 2011). Much of the surveillance takes place at a large, Utah-based data center where anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million phone calls may be recorded by those who fall on a special target list (Barrett, Ballhaus & Aylward, 2013). This has led to many questions from the American public, politicians and legal experts. Namely, is this constitutional?
The Right to Privacy
At the heart of this debate is the issue of citizen privacy. The Privacy Act of 1974 requires that the use of personal information must be limited to predefined purposes (Phillips, 2004). The Act is based on principles known as the Fair Information Practices and includes limitations on the collection of personal information; the need for knowledge and consent of the individual; the need for there to be a clear relevance to a defined purpose; limitations of information usage; and perhaps most importantly, the requirement of individual participation (Richards, 2013). Individual participation means that everyday citizens have the right to know about the collection of their personal information and challenge denial of those rights. In most cases, these principles are used in business practice. However, there are those that argue that the intent was to safeguard personal privacy in general and that components of this law should also hold weight on the subject of governmental surveillance (Richards, 2013).
In 2013 we live in a highly technical world. The web and other wireless technologies make us vulnerable in ways perhaps not fully envisioned by the designers of the Privacy Act of 1974. We face identity theft, the selling and reselling of our personal information and law enforcement monitoring. The confidentiality and security of our conversations, web purchases, online photos, financial records, personal relationships and other forms of information can be easily observed and tracked by hackers, thieves and, as it turns out, governmental agencies. Despite some general language in the law, in the wake of terrorism and national security issues there is no comprehensive privacy protection for the everyday American (Bailey, 2013).
The NSA's position is that it only intercepts when there is cause for concern for public safety or American security (Barrett, Ballhaus & Aylward, 2013). Further, the NSA has also commented that permissions must be granted before analysts can listen to conversations or monitor Internet communications, although there is not much clarification given to what types of permissions are required. However, critics argue that the eavesdropping is taking place by lower level analysts without proper court approvals (Bailey, 2013). In addition, it is unclear what training and guidelines, if any, apply to these surveillance practices and how analysts ultimately determine who and what warrants extra attention or investigation (Richards, 2013). Further, these analysts are permitted to not only monitor phone calls; they can also review e-mail messages, text messages, and instant messages without court approval.
Another concern is the usage of tax dollars. It is estimated that the cost to store all domestic phone calls a year is well over $20 million annually (Bailey, 2013). Exactly how much of taxpayer funding is being used for surveillance is unknown, although the NSA's yearly budget is thought to exceed $10 billion (Barrett, Ballhaus & Aylward, 2013). This could mean that the American people are not only being subjected to covert surveillance and monitoring of their phone conversations and digital communications, but also paying for it. For this to take place without an individual's knowledge is cited by some as a violation of the aforementioned privacy rights of the American people.
Invasion of Privacy or Homeland Security?
The NSA uses a very powerful surveillance tool known as Echelon (Pulliam & Rothfield, 2011). It is designed to intercept, analyze and dispense information collected from a network of global satellites. Digital data is gathered and transmitted to the base stations of many governmental agencies. This process is known as data-mining and includes info from a countless number of devices -- personal computers, fax machines, cellular devices, and even microwaves. It is estimated that there are nearly 3 billion communications intercepted each day (Barrett, Ballhaus & Aylward, 2013).
Echelon is a perfect example of how using the web or mobile devices can mean voluntarily sharing personal information. Website cookies, registered user profiles, web bugs and internet service provider (ISP) monitoring are all forms of surveillance are working behind the scenes as we post updates on Twitter and Facebook, send emails to coworkers and friends or pay our bills or shop online (Hiranandani, 2011). The government has access to citizen information and seemingly does not have to ask for permission to scrutinize it. It is understandable that in an age of terrorist threats the government would have renewed interest in the daily lives of all residents of the United States. Yet critics say that civil liberties are trampled on by agencies that use loopholes in the laws to take advantage of technology and play by their own rules in deciding who to target and how information is interpreted (Richards, 2013).
Cell phone surveillance is at the center of the governmental surveillance vs. civilian privacy issue. Cellphones offer great appeal to governmental groups because they continuously search for signal towers to send identification information (Clark, 2006). This makes phones, and the movement of those using them, traceable. In addition, a popular feature known as a global positioning system (GPS) has offered convenience and security to consumers and governments alike. Most citizens use GPS for tracking stolen vehicles, requesting roadside and emergency help, and obtaining mapping or directory information. However, both cell phone and GPS records include details that can be requested by law enforcement agencies and governmental agencies at any time and without consent of the user (Bailey, 2013). This information is attractive to those attempting to pinpoint the whereabouts, activities or movements of known or suspected terrorists.
Another controversial point is the government's use of keystroke loggers (Richards, 2013). Keystroke loggers record typing activity on computers. In some scenarios they are helpful. Parents can use them to monitor the web activities of their children, employers can monitor workers and technology teams can use them to detect errors in computer systems. Keystrokes can be monitored from anywhere and also include date and time stamp. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has used keystroke loggers in the past for extended monitoring of suspected terrorists or others accused of breaking the law (Clark, 2006). Many object to this practice because keystroke loggers can also record extra information beyond basic communications (Pulliam & Rothfield,…