First, I want to congratulate the NSA-leaker Edward Snowden for his courage and the great service he has done to Americans and to the world in exposing the NSA’s PRISM surveillance programs. The man must have balls the size of basketballs, although perhaps letting the world know his location — in Hong Kong, territory controlled by the People’s Republic of China, another nation that runs its own share of online surveillance programs — was unwise.
Some critics like the New York Times’ David Brooks say that what Snowden did was wrong, and that he showed a lack of respect for authority. It is certainly true that we live in an age where distrust of authority and the state has become commonplace. But perhaps that is only fair — after all, it is just ten years since the Iraq war, a war for which David Brooks was a cheerleader, wasted trillions of dollars of taxpayers’ money, and hundreds of thousands of lives chasing after so-called weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. If my state goes about wasting my money and thousands and thousands of lives on destroying foreign lands chasing after non-existent weapons of mass destruction, I am prone to distrust the state. Had the security services’ claims been subjected to proper scrutiny, it is possible that the disaster of Iraq could have been averted. Snowden is opening the surveillance and intelligence agencies that brought us the Iraq war — and that have now brought us PRISM — to proper public scrutiny.
In a democratic society, this is critical. These mass surveillance programs have been implemented without any real public discussion, precisely because they have been enacted in secret. This means that there has been no public discussion of goals, evidence, effectiveness and procedure.
We don’t know how effective or ineffective these programs are, because they have been concocted, enacted and analysed secretly. The security services have, in the interests of “national security” been empowered to enact the policies of their choice with limited governmental oversight, and certainly no public oversight. Their implicit hypothesis — that mass surveillance can prevent or reduce terrorism — has not as far as I can tell been subjected to serious academic scrutiny, at least publicly. This is not a scientific approach to policy — it is a knee-jerk approach to policy. In science, you collect data, release your findings and let others review your data, not claim a finding, secretly enact policies based on that finding, and hide any data.
We know that PRISM did not stop the Boston Bombings, or Sandy Hook, or the Aurora massacre. So perhaps it is the case that mass surveillance programs are ineffective against terrorists, particularly lone wolves who may exist outside of traditional social networks. Agencies have many questions to answer. Are there not more effective methods to preventing terrorism than dragnet surveillance? On what scientific basis have agencies enacted their current policies? Would Geiger counters not be more effective than surveillance dragnets in preventing nuclear terrorism? Where is the data to show that mass surveillance is or can be effective?
The bigger question, though, is whether the agencies involved considered the constitutional implications of their actions. The Fourth Amendment to the 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.
This empowers agencies to search and seize only with a warrant that particularly describes the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized. A dragnet like PRISM would seem to obliterate any such protections. Did the NSA and those who empowered them to undertake surveillance consider PRISM to be constitutional? If so, why? Although only a slim majority of Americans are against monitoring everyone’s electronic communications for the purposes of preventing terrorism, the Constitution is very clear about the conditions necessary in order to seize evidence.
Ultimately, the essence of national security are the legal and constitutional frameworks upon which civilised countries are based. By shredding constitutional protections through unaccountable and secretive mass surveillance programs, governments may be giving up the national security that they claim to be seeking to save. Only with transparency and daylight can society properly assess which measures are effective and acceptable to public safety and public liberty, and implement them in an accountable way.