Blurred Lines: When is National Security No Longer an Excuse?

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Snowden’s controversial disclosures reignite the debate over national security vs civil liberties.

Background

In early June, Edward Snowden, a US intelligence employee, disclosed highly classified documents to the Guardian and the Washington Post, revealing that the United States and United Kingdom had been running a highly intrusive mass electronic surveillance campaign.

Under a cluster of programs known as PRISM, Tempora and XKeyscore, the US had been allegedly collecting metadata on its nationals and foreign governments and their nationals by tapping into telephone, internet and secure computer networks, including those used by Washington’s European allies during EU summits in Brussels. According to Snowden, the PRISM program, supervised by the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court), gave its top intelligence agency, the NSA, the power to collect information on almost any type of interaction online — via e-mails, social networking sites, photos, chat (video or voice), etc.

These revelations raise the issue of the protection and implementation of citizens’ civil liberties, from the right to privacy and security to due process.

Governments’ snooping on their citizens is nothing new, even in its 21st century technologically advanced form. As early as 1997, news organizations reported on the US government’s easy access to private information. Yet, the NSA scandal is novel in that it has served as a catalyst event that undoubtedly confirmed old suspicions and sparked a worldwide debate on the trade off between national security and individual privacy.

Governments accessing telephone and internet data of individuals in the name of national security is not just a US-centric phenomenon, but a worldwide reality. In 2010, for example, Saudi Arabia halted Blackberry’s Mobile Messenger service because its heavy encryptions did not allow Saudi intelligence agencies to access the messages sent via the social platform. These acts undoubtedly spark the debate over whether or not they violate one’s civil liberties.

Why is the National Security Debate Relevant?

In the world of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, there are no crimes, but the cost of maintaining such a society is the loss of all privacy. Unlike the “Nineteen Eighty-Four state, many governments are not aiming to eradicate all crime. They aim — or at least claim — to collect private data only for the sake of national security. According to NSA chief General Keith Alexander, its surveillance program helped prevent “dozens” of terrorist attacks. He also asserted that the disclosure of these secret programs are a national security threat in itself, claiming that “if we tell the terrorists every way that we’re going to track them, they will get through and Americans will die.”

The question now being raised is: where do governments and individuals converge in terms of national security and individual privacy tradeoffs?

In a national US poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in July 2013, by a 45-40 margin, voters believe that “the government’s anti-terrorism efforts go too far restricting civil liberties.” Yet, this is a reversal in sentiment as a poll conducted in January 2010 revealed that by a 63-25 margin, voters believed “that such activities didn’t go far enough to adequately protect the country.”

While many varying views are present in the argument on civil liberties, experts assert that drawing a line between acceptable and unnecessary government snooping requires defining national security. In tangible terms, within the US for example, national security concerns are the likes of terrorism related activities but not petty robberies. It is argued that if national security becomes the only umbrella under which individual privacy invasion is permissible, any circumstance except a legitimate national security threat does not justify the loss of individual privacy.

Yet on the other hand, many question this justification at all, bearing in mind the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which states:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Consequently, the focus shifts to law making or law enforcement. Many legal scholars have called for greater transparency in the laws surrounding the US’ surveillance programs. According to them, keeping newer laws classified, which were interpreted by existing laws (such as the Patriot Act), “runs counter to the most basic principles of democracy and the rule of law.”

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