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Sound Off: NSA Surveillance


Two weeks ago, The Guardian, a UK newspaper, reported on an immense NSA phone monitoring and surveillance program that tracked the phone records of millions of Americans. Similarly, NSA’s Prism program, which gives “direct access to servers of firms including Google, Apple, and Facebook”, seems to be an overreach of government power, infringing on the privacy rights of individuals. Many politicians on both sides of the aisle have come out condemning these programs, and news outlets have rushed to collect as much information as they could to report on this breaking story. Indeed, even the New York Times Editorial Board, in a blistering article, has come out and expressed their outrage at the Obama Administration, claiming that the administration has “now lost all credibility on this issue”. It is especially troubling since this was “coming from a president who once promised transparency and accountability”.

In light of all this, the editors at NSB decided to have a “Sound Off” on this particular issue. Like last time, the discussion will take the format of a simple Q&A that I prepared for our editors to answer.

How do you feel about the reports coming out about NSA’s surveillance programs?

Alex S. Pak (ASP): I feel like this is definitely a violation of the privacy of the citizenry. While people will argue that there is a real need for security, as is the norm, it is once again being balanced by the need for privacy and the preservation of our rights. However, I believe it is naive to believe that this was wholly the product of the current administration. This is a pattern that has emerged since the advent of telecommunication and while technology advanced significantly and has allowed for more accurate monitoring, the underlying motivation has largely stayed the same. As a country we use fear to justify the trampling of the very rights that make our country “free” which is at best laughable and at worst, a symptom of a police state.

Jun Kim (JK): It’s disturbing, but not all that surprising. Ever since the Patriot Act was passed, the government has been requesting personal information on everybody they suspected of being terrorists without proof. It’s safe to assume that the Patriot Act was just stepping stone for the NSA surveillance programs. What’s even more worrisome is that even with the PRISM program, they weren’t able to stop the bombing in Boston.

Brian M. Williams (BMW): I’m not surprised. I assumed it was happening and if someone didn’t then they were foolish. When programs like this were initially revealed to be illegally happening under the Bush administration the only thing that happened was that congress passed laws to make it legal. So yes, of course the government is still running programs like this. I’m a bit surprised at the size of the data collection, but I guess that’s just where our technological capabilities are at now.

Phone-hackingIn a recent poll, 56% of Americans back NSA blanket phone tracking, essentially prioritizing probes over privacy. What do you think?

ASP: I feel like popular media and the government itself has created this atmosphere of acceptance and denial. So many people see the world as black and white these days within the framework of an us/them dichotomy. Because of this, Americans allow the fear that mass media creates to blind them to the fact that programs like these are not programs that simply protect us, but also  set a dangerous precedent that one day, I fear, we will wake up to and be too late to reverse.

JK: I don’t support it. It’s a waste of money and clearly an ineffective program. Why should the government be allowed to waste taxpayers’ money on a security system that doesn’t even work? And think about why the US is under constant terrorist threats. The US was bombing the Middle East and killing innocent civilians in the process. Maybe we need to think of a new way of fighting terrorism.

BMW: Here’s the thing, private companies have been collecting this kind of data for years. An IT guy working at Target famously said they could tell if a customer was pregnant based on changes in their shopping habits. If private companies have all this passive info where no names are attached then why shouldn’t the government have it to actually try to protect us? Yes, there can be abuses, but I trust big corporations as much as I trust the government, which is to say not at all. We’re giving this info away to make our lives more convenient; we might as well get some safety benefits, too. But I would like to see proof that we are!

For you, where is the balance between catching terrorists and your right to privacy?Cartoon (Liberty)

ASP: This will forever be a question that plagues us. Where do we draw the line? Is it OK to profile? Is it OK the monitor calls? What about emails? What about web searches? Personally, I feel that we are too entrenched in this system to effect any real change, but in an ideal world, I would say privacy over security every time.

JK: That’s assuming we need to give up our privacy to catch these terrorists. And why do we have to give up our right to privacy for the bad decisions that the government has made? I say we stick with the constitution. If the government wants to get my information, they better have a damn good reason as to why.

BMW: The line for me is clear. In the phone monitoring program the government is collecting just numbers, no names, no content of the phone calls and storing it in case it becomes useful later. With Prism they are monitoring the actual content of what we say, write, and read. That is a whole different ballgame. One is the passive collection of information and the other is monitoring thoughts. My other concern is that whatever happens with the “war on terrorism” the government will NEVER end this program.

There has been much debate about Edward Snowden, the person responsible for leaking the NSA files. (Opinion 1, 2, 3, 4, even a bi-partisan 5) Is he a hero in your eyes?Edward Snowden

ASP: No, I don’t see him as a hero because I feel that had any other American been privy to the information, he/she should have felt a sense of duty to the country that he/she loved and her citizens. That being said, I feel like all the people that didn’t speak up were definitely jackasses.

JK: He is definitely a hero. He gave up his life in America to let the rest of us know that the government was overstepping its bounds.  The man deserves a medal.

BMW: For me the jury is still out on Snowden. I think Obama has gone way too far with this secrecy stuff and has gone back on his previously stated opinions on these issues. We have a bullshit secret court that’s hearing secret cases and rubber stamping them for the government in secret rulings. This is outrageous and I’m glad he moved this issue back into the spotlight. On the other hand, this guy just made public our attempts to hack China, which I want our government to be doing.

Moderator’s Last Thoughts: Bush era policies have been greatly expanded during the Obama Administration, but to the credit of both Presidents, there hasn’t been a terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 (I’m excluding Boston Marathon) and our government finally killed Osama bin Laden. That being said, I can’t help feeling that this came at a heavy price. When the twin towers fell, there was a gradual yet seismic shift in the pantheon of American endeavors; security of the people seems to have displaced the preservation of individual freedom and liberty as the chief concern. While I’m all in favor of trying to prevent terrorism, the blanket phone and internet surveillance is a large overreach of government that is eroding our freedom. I can’t help thinking of what Reagan once said:

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

Contributing Writers: Alex S. Pak, Jun Kim, & Brian M. Williams

Moderated by: Paul G. Lee

Paul G. Lee
Paul is a displaced Southern California native who currently resides in Washington D.C.. His post-collegiate experience was highlighted by his move to the East Coast where he worked briefly for Congress. After his stint as a public servant, he jumped into the private sector and currently works as a consultant with a D.C.-based technology firm.

6 thoughts on “Sound Off: NSA Surveillance

  1. 1. Snowden is a hero now for many people for many reasons. For me he is one for two:
    a. He helped start a much better/informed conversation on the way that governments/the MSM/other nations use/misuse our metadata. This conversation has been lacking in “front page” priority. Now it has more.
    b. His leaked slides show just how abysmal government agencies are using Power Point slides. From a design to illuminate content end those slights are seriously some of the worst I have ever seen.

    2. FISA courts also will get more discussion out of this. They are not working and “we” need to tweak them. The Church Commission did us a huge favor now it’s time to revisit FISA and demand independent oversight.

    3. All countries across the globe are a part of this so “blaming” Bush or Obama is silly. We’re all doing it. Until a million man march happens on DC under the banner “Be Big Brother but Please Also Let Me Be Free and Tell Me Exactly How You’re Doing So” happens nothing much changes here.

    4. The rest of what Snowden has/is willing to show us will be interesting. If he already has “too much” expect Hong Kong’s finest to be persuaded kindly to let the US have him. And soon.

  2. Thanks for the comments! Some thoughts:

    1.) I’m with Brian on whether Snowden is a hero or not. The jury is still out. The public may never know what kind of damage to current national security operations that the leaks caused, and the fact that Snowden violated the law is crystal clear. Justified? That’s for the public to decide, but I fear he will get crushed if this goes to a special court

    2.) Two things came to mind when I heard about the scandal. First, I thought about how huge a priority it must have been for the government to protect citizens/ avert terrorism that they would do something like this. Second, it also highlights the complexities of the war on terror, that they felt like they needed to resort to this. Someone, somewhere had to make this decision.

  3. I’ll add this Snowden, it seems, certainly could have gotten his hands on a ton more vitally important information like CIA stations chiefs and locations, but didn’t. So, I’ll concede I dont think he was trying to hurt the US from his point of view. His level of access shows that the Intelligence community has gotten WAY too big and WAY too many people have access to our biggest secrets.

    It also has to be noted that that Reagan quote Paul used was about Medicare and Medicaid. Reagan said those would be the end of Freedom in America. Keep that in mind next time you hear a republican rail against Obamacare or universal healthcare.

    1. Is this all that Snowden had? Do you think there will be more? I don’t know if this is the last thing that Snowden will leak. Plus, what if he has a bunch of secrets, and then is coerced by a hostile nation to give those up? Again, until the dust settles on this, I can’t call it one way or another. I definitely think that (re)starting this conversation is good for America, though.
      And about the Reagan quote, it can be applied to a lot of different situations. The sentiment is the same. And the jury is still out on AFA. I’m hoping that it will work out exactly how the President said it would (lowering premiums, healthcare for everyone, etc.).

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