Yes, there is more than enough reason to freak out about the NSA

A recent op-ed in the Digital Journal, titled “Is there a reason to not freak out about the NSA?” argues that while there are “plenty of reasons to freak out about the spying being done around the internet[, t]here are also plenty of reasons to not freak out about it, but most people don’t know why.”

Well, this op-ed certainly doesn’t tell us why, either. Or rather, it tries to make a conclusive argument but fails.

“This conversation,” the author argues, “[n]eeds to move beyond the government and form a topic of legislative discussion that talks about the balance between national security and civil liberties.”

Agreed. That is precisely the discussion we need. It is also the discussion Edward Snowden wants us to have.

“There are very few people,” the author argues further, “who are looking at the bigger picture.”

Right again. Not nearly enough people are looking at the bigger picture at all. If they did, there would probably be less: “so they are spying on us. So what? Big surprise, haha,” and more freaking out about exactly how massively intrusive and potentially dangerous NSA surveillance is.

However, this is not what the author has in mind and so the argument takes a rather worrying turn.

Consider this paragraph:

People tend to focus too much on what the government is doing in this regard. Privacy is hard to define and even harder to defend, especially on the internet. The NSA is a huge deal, but it is not as big as some people and the media want you to think it is. There is a lot of bad that the government does and a lot that we don’t know about. The NSA wouldn’t seem like a big deal if we knew of all the secrets of the United States governmental activities.

Now, first of all, it is very difficult to understand why we shouldn’t be focusing on what the government does in this regard, as what the government does threatens democracy itself.

Second of all, yes privacy may be hard to define and even harder to defend, especially on the internet but surely the author cannot mean to suggest that we shouldn’t at least be trying?

What is more, a number of people have come up with some decent suggestions as to what privacy is and why it needs to be protected.

For example, Glenn Greenwald in his book No Place to Hide correctly argues that “[p]rivacy is a core condition of being a free person” and that “a denial of privacy operates to severely restrict one’s freedom of choice”. This is because “if you can never evade the watchful eyes of a supreme authority, there is no choice but to follow the dictates that authority imposes.”

Privacy, amongst other things, is the knowledge that you are not being watched, or the freedom from fear that you could be watched – or all your actions recorded and stored for a later date – at any given time.

That is worth protecting because without privacy there can be no freedom, no freedom of expression, no testing of boundaries and, importantly, no challenge to the status quo, even if the status quo is as precarious as it is now.

Finally, because the NSA is only one of many problems and might not “seem like a big deal if we knew of all the secrets of the United States governmental activities,” it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t worry about NSA surveillance as much as we do – or even more.

Certainly, there may be even worse things that governments do that we do not know about, but what we do know about the NSA is pretty bad in and of itself. It is also something which – because we know about it – we can and should be worrying about, precisely because the NSA “threatens our democracy in general.” It is something we can now – because we know and worry about it – try to change.

The author’s argument makes little sense. On the one hand, it consents that NSA spying is a big deal – the biggest deal, in fact, if it threatens democracy – on the other hand it argues that the NSA is really nothing to get worked up about. Is this meant to be ironic? Am I missing something?

Reasons given in the op-ed for not getting freaked out about the NSA are more than a little confusing:

We are able to speak out about it with repercussions […] so it seems like it is not as big of a deal to the government if it gets out. The NSA is not out to get you either, unless you are a terrorist. The NSA is also not the only people to be looking at your online patterns. When you get on the internet, you take the risk of having your information seen by people who may want to hack you or know what you are doing.

Now, where to start counting the ways in which this is problematic?

Firstly, ever since the Snowden-revelations began almost a year ago, we have seen a lot of repercussions, yes, but not all of them were good, especially not for Edward Snowden and the reporting journalists. They have been demonised and – more worryingly still – threatened with prosecution for enabling us to speak about this with repercussions (I am assuming this refers to calls for reform, unless I completely misunderstand this rather obscure part of the argument) – many of which aren’t anywhere near as far-reaching as they should be.

Secondly, the Snowden-revelations prove that the NSA isn’t just out to get terrorists. Sure, Edward Snowden himself has said that the average employee at the NSA is “not out there to get you” – the average internet-user not guilty of any wrongdoing. This may be true but the revelations also show that the NSA and GCHQ are very much out to get many people besides terrorist, such as political dissenters and activists.

Thirdly, the NSA may not be the only one looking at our online patters. But the “others do it, so don’t freak out because the NSA is doing it” is about the lamest, most unconvincing excuse for mass surveillance out there.

We should be worried about online privacy in general, not just with regard to the NSA.

But we never consented to the NSA (a government agency working within a so-called democracy) looking at all our data and we would do well to get worked up about finding out just how much looking they actually do, irrespective of who else may be looking as well.

The final paragraph of the op-ed reads like standard NSA-PR:

There is reason to not be concerned, though. The first thing to note is that the NSA program is actually a legal program. We can see the budget for the NSA. There are many agencies that are not known to us that spend billions of our money each year. The NSA is a program that has their own website. The NSA is also not the real threat to our civil liberties. Terrorism is the real threat. Even with the increased security, we still enjoy a lot more freedom than other countries around the world. We would not be sitting here complaining about the NSA if we lived in a police state like North Korea. The NSA is also not actually eavesdropping on you. The NSA is data mining and looking for patterns of a few people suspected of being terrorists. If you are not looking up suspicious websites, the NSA is probably not giving you a second look.

Apart from the fact that the terminology here is confusing because the NSA (as in, the agency) is frequently referred to as a “program”, here is how this should have read:

There is no reason not to be concerned. The first thing to note is that the constitutionality of the NSA program (or rather, programmes – plural and referring to what the NSA does rather than what it is – or isn’t) is in dispute.

Then there is a lot of discussion about how urgently legislation needs to be amended to reflect the advancement of technology in the digital age. Even if all of the NSA’s and GCHQ’s spying programmes were legal (which is also disputed), then this would still raise serious questions about the adequacy of the laws that regulate these programmes.

We can see the budget for the NSA, yes. We can see it now, because the Washington Post ran a comprehensive feature a while ago on the (previously secret) Black Budget. The disclosure of a secret budget does not make the secretive practices of agencies involved in mass surveillance legal. Neither does the fact that we all know that there is an NSA – with its own website – or that we know that this is a spy organisation that does spying, diminish the impact of finding out about the extent of spying on innocent people the NSA shouldn’t be doing in the first place.

We still enjoy more liberties than people in other countries but one of the reasons why we should freak out about the NSA is precisely that we want to keep those liberties in the future. We would not be sitting here complaining about the NSA if the US was like North Korea because the moment we did so, we would likely be detained, probably tortured and thrown in jail or worse.

NSA spying is a real threat to our civil liberties. It may even be a bigger threat at the moment than terrorism. As such, there is little evidence that extensive surveillance as conducted by the NSA is effective against terrorism. By contrast, there is evidence that surveillance of this scope is threatening civil liberties.

Granted, the NSA may not at the moment be interested in most people but it is interested in far more than just terrorists. Economic espionage is as much on the NSA’s agenda as spying on foreign leaders or people who voice legitimate political dissent is.

The claim that the NSA is not actually eavesdropping on people, i.e. not looking at their content, but “only” data mining is not only false – the NSA is very much looking at content and eavesdropping on chats and phone calls – it is also misleading: metadata mining is in fact much more intrusive than people tend to realise, given what it can tell the NSA about people’s lives.

Finally, the claim that “[i]f you are not looking up suspicious websites, the NSA is probably not giving you a second look,” simply paraphrases the “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” argument that has been debunked about as often as it has been made.

And if we think that we have nothing to hide (and therefore nothing to fear), we should indeed ask ourselves: “how can [we] know for sure?”

We

have no idea if [we] have something to fear or not, because [we] do not know what the government does with the data it collects. If the government keeps secret what it is collecting about [us] or why, [we] cannot correct potential errors. And if [we] know anything about our justice system, [we] know that errors are common.

Privacy, whatever it is, isn’t something that only criminals desire. “Privacy is a fundamental part of a dignified life.” It protects us not only from being made to look guilty when we are not, it also enables free speech, free association, creativity and a free and independent life.

If none of this matters to you, then yes, there is reason to not get freaked out about the NSA or the GCHQ or anyone else who is spying on us.

However, if you do not wish to live in a society where “we are all worthy of suspicion until proven otherwise” then there is absolutely no reason whatsoever not to freak out – and a lot more than many people have bothered to do so far.

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