Shining a Light on the PRISM
The revelation of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) massive digital and telephonic data collection program, known as PRISM, has ignited contentious debate over the issue of state surveillance. The intelligence agency’s program, initially established for the purpose of counterterrorism and intercepting foreign agents, was revealed to encompass data collection on American citizens. Two discernible and familiar camps have taken shape in the public debate over the NSA’s sweeping surveillance operations: the advocates of civil liberties and the protection of privacy on one side, and the proponents of national security on the other.
On June 9, Edward Snowden revealed himself as the leak. Snowden is a former technical assistant at the CIA and recently discharged employee of the private defence contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, and the NSA. The 29-year old has become the object of interest and scrutiny and fled to Hong Kong, which he has praised for its reputation for respect for the rule of law, free speech, and positive disposition toward whistle-blowers. It is also worth noting that Hong Kong has as an extradition treaty with the US. This is sure to cause friction in the near future between China and the US, even after their apparently cordial summit at Sunnylands. Media outlets have stated that Snowden, like Assange before him, is seeking asylum in Ecuador, following his landing in Moscow.
Reaction on the Hill
Lawmakers of all political stripes in Washington have condemned the leak as a grave threat to national security, and decried Snowden as a traitor. Furthermore, they have gone on to defend the legality of the NSA’s PRISM program, which derives its legitimacy from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court. The former intelligence contractor, however, has by no means been universally condemned. Rather, Snowden has very quickly become a highly polarizing figure, not unlike other whistle-blowers such as Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. Some argue that he is a hero, driven by his ideals, while others contend he is a traitorous and narcissistic villain. Whatever one may think of Snowden as an individual, his motives, and the implications of the leak, one thing is certain – the debate over state surveillance, privacy, and national security is long overdue and one that must be taken seriously.
Metadata and Murmurs
According to a study of the Pew Research Center conducted in the midst of the media maelstrom on the leak, a majority of Americans (56%) support the collection of digital and telephonic information as an acceptable counterterrorism measure. Simultaneously, critics of the program argue that the actual threat and incidence of terrorism do not justify a program of such broad scope and invasive access to private information. The availability heuristic can be seen at play here, where media coverage and the salience of the issue in political discourse has perhaps overstated the prevalence of terrorist threats. In this view, terrorism is not so much an imminent to physical security, but a political communications strategy.
Professor Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab and professor of political science at the University of Toronto, has rightly highlighted the ways in which “metadata,” or telephonic and digital transaction records, can be and is collected by intelligence agencies. Drawing from an MIT study, Professor Deibert underscores that far from being less revealing than the content of correspondences, metadata combined with powerful computer algorithms, can identify users with 95% accuracy. Deibert concludes that NSA spying on this scale is ultimately harmful to America’s international standing, in that it undermines the country’s “Free Internet” policy, and that the establishment of appropriate safeguards of liberty and methods of oversight is imperative.
The outrage on the part of the advocates of civil liberties and of privacy is that these measures, put in place by the Bush administration in 2001 to mitigate the threat of terrorism, have been expanded under the Obama administration and have been so broad in their scope that they have amounted to the routine surveillance of American citizens. The argument for surveillance reform is well founded, but the program and its mission should not be dismissed outright.
Undoubtedly, the defence of civil liberties and privacy is paramount. But so too are the very real concerns of governments to ensure the security for their citizenry and to protect their national interests. To analysts and observers of intelligence agencies and security services, the motives and activities of PRISM come as no surprise and are justified by their goal of ensuring security. James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, points out that Snowden’s decision amounted in “reckless disclosures of intelligence community measures to keep Americans safe.”
In the end, where one stands on the issue of state surveillance and the collection of metadata comes down to one’s perspective and the level of trust that one has for government. The activities of national intelligence agencies, however, when pursued with the proper oversight and safeguards, are crucial in preserving the security necessary for the dialogue over the issue of privacy and civil liberties to continue.