In the midst of the Russian Federation granting temporary political asylum to Edward Snowden, more damaging revelations have emerged about the range and extent of the National Security Agency’s collection of electronically transmitted messages have emerged. By some, Snowden has been called a traitor and by others, a patriot. Whatever history judges Edward Snowden to be, it cannot be denied that his disclosures have provoked a national debate on the practices of the National Security Agency in relation to data collection.
It was recently revealed that the National Security Agency’s data collection practices extend to running search algorithms over every single electronic communication into or out of the United States whether concerning American citizens or foreigners. The communication that is selected for additional scrutiny is only chosen on the basis that it is connected with any person that the National Security Agency suspects of being a terrorist, foreign agent or other enemy of the state. The legal argument is that this level of breach of privacy is well beyond what congress intended in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and what the framers of the constitution intended to be within the power of the federal government in both the fourth and fourteenth amendments.
The President has sought to defend the practice by saying that the messages are deleted after they are scanned by the National Security Agency computers. Naturally, all of the is very worrying. Conservative commentators sometimes refer to the argument that the honest have nothing to hide. However, as history has shown, this has often been the argument of despots attempting to justify programs such as purges, the inquisition and Hitler’s persecution of Jewish people. The existence of this system allows suspicion to fall on practically anyone that could conceivably have any connection with terrorism. All of this has occurred at the same time that the President has been announcing a new scheme to make the surveillance program more acceptable to the general public.
The reforms which have been proposed seem to be sensible. The court will have to balance national security and civil liberty issues when deciding applications for surveillance, there will be an external expert review and officers in the intelligence agencies responsible for ensuring that breaches of citizen’s rights to privacy do not occur. All of these proposal seem to be measured and rational responses which balance the concerns that have been raised by the Edward Snowden disclosures. The reforms should not have any impact on the capacity of the country to protect itself whilst citizen’s rights to privacy should receive greater protection.
Obama’s claim that “there is no spying on Americans” may be looking shaky, but the national policy that eventually results must ultimately balance the need for national security against the human right to privacy which is protected by the United States Constitution and a variety of International Human Rights Instruments.