Mass governnment surveillance pros and cons: Is NSA internet spying and data mining justified?

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Politics  /  Security  /  Internet


government internet surveillance

Source: Composite image by G_marius

Internet surveillance helps to detect threats but can infringe citizens' privacy, and the laws which protect it. Is mass government surveillance a necessary evil? Why is the NSA spying on regular citizens? Is Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor? Join our debate on pros and cons of government surveillance and vote in our poll

Government spying on citizens

Wikileaks new release of CIA hacking documents casts new doubts on the ethics of government approach to privacy protection. With the advent of the Digital Era, many governments have adopted a policy of mass online surveillance and data mining. This is a clear case of the privacy vs security dilemma. Governments justify computer and network monitoring based on security concerns. Online surveillance may help detect threats such as terrorism, crime, child pornography, tax evasion and fraud. However these measures have been strongly criticized for the infringement of privacy it necessitates and potential abuse of the data collected for political and commercial purposes. Due to this, maintaining Internet privacy is becoming increasingly difficult. Should the government engage in bulk collection of personal data for national security purposes? Is it acceptable for the greater good to have our online communications monitored? 

NSA mass surveillance and Edward Snowden

The NSA surveillance program PRISM is one of the most paradigmatic cases of a government spying on its citizens. This program was launched in 2007, following President Bush's Protect America Act, to collect and store data from internet communications from at least 9 major internet companies in the United States, including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Skype, Youtube, Yahoo!, Paltalk, AOL and Facebook.

PRISM replaced another mass Internet data mining program, the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which was launched by the US government after the 9/11 terrorist attacks but heavily criticized and considered illegal. Through PRISM, the NSA monitor and collect internet communications from internet service providers using Data Intercept Technology. The type of communications intercepted and collected include emails, text chats, video and voice messages, voice-over-IP chats (including Skype calls), social networks information and files transferred. In addition to NSA, other government intelligence agencies such as CIA and FBI were given access to the data collected.

This secret government surveillance program was exposed to the public thanks to the leaks made by the NSA contractor Edward Snowden which were published on June 2013 by The Guardian and The Washington Post. The classified information disclosed by Edward Snowden's NSA Files also revealed that the UK government also spied on British citizens through the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Apparently the NSA surveillance program was not only used to collect intelligence for domestic affairs but also to collect data from foreign leaders and politicians. Snowden's revelations triggered a series of domestic and international criticisms. Some claimed it was a perversion of the system, that this type of data-gathering is a serious intrusion into people's privacy and entails other risks. The government justified it as part of the wider security strategy of the country.

Edward Snowden has been blamed for disclosing this mass surveillance system and endangering national security. At the same time thanks to him individual liberties may be now safer from government interevention. Snowden travelled to Moscow and requested asylum in Russia to avoid facing legal action and charges in America for revealing secret information. He is now afraid of being abducted by American secret services. Is Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor? Is Edward Snowden simply a whistle-blower or a responsible citizen concerned with fighting to prevent the government from abusing its power? Share your views on the forum below.

Watch Edward Snowden TedTalk on how take back the internet:

Government surveillance pros and cons

There are many pros and cons associated with the use of mass internet surveillance. This is a list of the most common arguments in favor and agaist government surveillance programs:

Pros:

  • Having the capacity to trace and check the communication of suspected criminals and terrorist may help avoid crimes and save lives. Police and intelligence agencies can investigate suspects and find out about their wereabouts.
  • Deterrence factor: terrorists, offenders and wrongdoers find it more difficult to plan and organize their attacks and crimes. Simply the very real possibility of them being caught may make many of them change their minds.
  • Government develops a know-how that could be very important in terms of future security. As described in many science-fictions books, the Internet and the control of information will become a new battlefield in future wars. A country with tested and powerful data-gathering tools may be better placed to protect its citizens interests in such battles in the future.
  • Research: The information collected for the purpose of security could also be used in the long run to better understand other aspects of society. Part of the databases could be made accessible in the future to social scientists who could make great contributions in their fields.

Cons:

  • "Big Brother". The increasing capacity of the government to spy on our private lives can contribute to a society in which there is no room for privacy and governments control even the minds of citizens. Governments could turn in authoritarian "Big Brothers" as in the dystopian society desribed by George Orwell in 1984.  
  • The loss of personal privacy can have important psychological impact on people and a sense of being controlled by the government or others. Additionally these programs clash with individual rights and liberties and can be considered as not democratic. Since many of these programs are classified citizens cannot easily check that their rights are respected by the governments and that the information is used according to some clearly defined security purposes.
  • The information collected by mass internet surveillance programs could be used for other purposes by the government and even by private organizations. Data gathered about regular citizens, business people, and political leaders could be used against them or to obtain an unfair advantage. Hackers could potentially gain access to the databases of the government surveillance programs and sell it to rival governments, companies or organized crime groups.
  • These programs are very expensive and mean that many government resources are deviated from other potentially more beneficial policies. It is difficult to assess the efficacy of secret mass surveillance systems and therefore it is difficult to justify that this is a good way to spend government limited resources.

Difficult questions: What do you think of the NSA spying on us for security purposes? Are there better alternatives? Could these government surveillance systems be subject to public scrutiny and accountability rules? How much more security should these programs deliver to justify the infringement of privacy and personal liberties? Join our discussion forum below.

Watch this academic debate on National Security and Cyber Surveillance at George Washington University: 

 
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