I am a proponent of strong government surveillance, particularly the mass surveillance of U.S citizens data conducted by the NSA. It is an important tool for understanding state actors and terrorists that might pose a threat to lives of U.S citizens. Michael Hayden, an ex-director of the CIA, writes that “50% to 60% of American intelligence day in and day out is provided by signals intelligence” that agencies like the NSA collecting. Although the majority of us will never know how effective or important surveillance programs might be, I’ll trust the director of the CIA if he believes it is necessary.
We are often left in the dark as to the effectiveness of these programs. A Propublica article complains of a lack of evidence that NSA surveillance has helped thwart terrorists. They say that the “agency has often made hedged statements that avoid any sweeping assertions about attacks thwarted”. Of course an agency that must collect messages in secret doesn’t want to give specifics of their tactics and results. It could hamper the effectiveness of their mission. And why would we not surveil U.S citizens when, according to Forbes, “every single jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the U.S. in the post 9/11 era was either a citizen or legal resident”. I think an important piece of evidence we do have though is that we haven’t had a single foreign terrorist attack in the U.S since 9/11 while they almost seem routine in Europe now. While there are certainly other factors that are contributing to the rise of European attacks and fall of U.S attacks, it’s easy to conjecture our intelligence agencies may have something to do with this.
Another attack against data collections like this is that “to conduct mass surveillance to locate something that simply doesn’t happen all that often (terrorism) is largely pointless” and costs far too much money. This is a paraphrased opinion held by Bruce Schneier, a well respected computer security expert. While Bruce has some fantastic insights into security, I disagree with this one. This may be a great strategy if we’re trying to defend a computer network. But when it comes to terrorism, I don’t think the public would accept a yearly terrorist attack as acceptable. It’s highly unlikely you would be one of the fifty people killed in the attack, but humans have a bad intuition for probability. It will still shake the national psyche. And I suspect the families of those killed won’t be comforted by the money we saved.
Of course, you can still argue that privacy is a right the government shouldn’t be breaching in such a manner. I don’t really think it’s that much of a breach though. No agency could possibly have the resources to save my e-mail conversation with my professor from last year. I imagine all computer memory manufacturers in the world combined can’t make enough memory to save all the data the NSA looks at in a day. A more realistic scenario is filtering the data quickly and saving select information and summary statistics. Unless you’re having some very strange conversations, the average citizen only is likely included solely in summary stats. I think most people would agree this is far from an egregious breach of privacy. And even if you’re data is saved, I suspect the chances of actually having any human look at your conversation are small.
I think it is also telling that the U.S government so overwhelmingly supports programs like these. Micheal Hayden writes that “it takes a special kind of arrogance … to believe that [your] moral judgment on the dilemma suddenly trumps that of two (incredibly different) presidents, both houses of the U.S. Congress, both political parties, [and] the U.S. court system.” While an opinion of the masses (and especially the government masses) doesn’t mean something is right, there are a lot of government officials who largely made their decisions about this outside of political pressure due to the secrecy of intelligence. They have a more complete picture than I or anyone else outside of government might of the problems. I tend to trust thoughtful people, with a complete picture, who are likely to be making this decision free of political pressure.