MELBOURNE – Thanks to Edward Snowden, I now know that the US National Security Agency is spying on me. It uses Google, Facebook, Verizon, and other Internet and communications companies to collect vast amounts of digital information, no doubt including data about my emails, cellphone calls, and credit card usage.
I am not a United States citizen, so it’s all perfectly legal. And, even if I were a US citizen, it is possible that a lot of information about me would have been swept up anyway, though it may not have been the direct target of the surveillance operation.
Should I be outraged at this intrusion on my privacy? Has the world of George Orwell’s 1984 finally arrived, three decades late? Is Big Brother watching me?
I don’t feel outraged. Based on what I know so far, I don’t really care. No one is likely to be reading my emails or listening in on my Skype calls. The volume of digital information that the NSA gathers would make that an impossible task.
Instead, computer programs mine the data for patterns of suspicious activity that intelligence analysts hope will lead them to terrorists. The process is not all that different from the data collection and analysis that many corporations use to target their ads at us more effectively, or that give us the online search results that we are most likely to want.
The question is not what information a government, or business, gathers, but what they do with it. I would be outraged if there were evidence that – for example – the US government was using the private information that it scoops up to blackmail foreign politicians into serving US interests, or if such information were leaked to newspapers in an effort to smear critics of US policies. That would be a real scandal.
If, however, nothing of that sort has happened, and if there are effective safeguards in place to ensure that it does not happen, then the remaining question is whether this huge data-gathering effort really does protect us against terrorism, and whether we are getting value for money from it. The NSA claims that communications surveillance has prevented more than 50 terrorist attacks since 2001. I don’t know how to evaluate that claim, or whether we could have prevented those attacks in other ways.
The value-for-money question is even more difficult to assess. In 2010, the Washington Post produced a major report on “Top Secret America.” After a two-year investigation involving more than a dozen journalists, the Post concluded that no one knows how much US intelligence operations cost – or even how many people American intelligence agencies employ.
At the time, the Post reported that 854,000 people held “top secret” security clearances. Now that figure is reported to be 1.4 million. (The sheer number of people does make one wonder whether misuse of personal data for blackmail or other private purposes is inevitable.)
Whatever we think of the NSA surveillance program itself, the US government has clearly overreacted to the release of information about it. It revoked Snowden’s passport, and wrote to governments asking them to reject any asylum request that he might make. Most extraordinary of all, it seems that the US was behind the apparent refusal of France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal to permit Bolivian President Evo Morales’s airplane to enter their airspace en route home from Moscow, on the grounds that Snowden might have been aboard. Morales had to land in Vienna, and Latin American leaders were furious at what they took to be an insult to their dignity.
Supporters of democracy ought to think long and hard before prosecuting people like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Snowden. If we think that democracy is a good thing, then we must believe that the public should know as much as possible about what the government it elects is doing. Snowden has said that he made the disclosures because “the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.”
He’s right about that. How can a democracy determine whether there should be government surveillance of the kind that the NSA is conducting if it has no idea that such programs exist? Indeed, Snowden’s leaks also revealed that National Intelligence Director James Clapper misled the US Congress about the NSA’s surveillance practices in his testimony at a hearing held in March by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
When the Washington Post, which, along with The Guardian, published the information that Snowden provided, it asked Americans whether they support or oppose the NSA’s intelligence-gathering program. Some 58% of those surveyed supported it. Yet the same poll found that only 43% supported prosecuting Snowden for disclosing the program, while 48% were opposed.
The poll also indicated 65% support for public hearings by the US Congress on the NSA surveillance program. If that happens, we will all be much better informed because of Snowden’s disclosures.
Peter Singer is Professor of bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Practical Ethics, One World, and The Life You Can Save.