Since Edward Snowden’s revelations in June last year, the NSA scandal has been an issue that just won’t go away for the White House and the US intelligence community. On Friday President Obama finally announced changes to the rules and setup of what organisations like the NSA are allowed to do. So what are the NSA actually eavesdropping on? Will Obama actually change anything? And is this just a symptom of the 21st century?
But first of all, how did this come out into the open? Edward Snowden was a contractor for the NSA who became disillusioned with what the NSA was doing. He collected information about their surveillance programs and fled the country to Hong Kong. There he sent secret documents to newspapers like the Guardian. When the US wanted him arrested, the Chinese allowed him to leave for Russia where he was eventually given asylum on the condition he stopped leaking new documents.
So what was in these documents? Though you might imagine technicians pouring over your emails to your parents, the reality is much less exciting. While their “Prism” program allowed them access to information from tech companies like Google, Facebook and Skype, including actual emails and phone calls, the main thing the NSA collects is metadata. This is the data about phone calls or emails: who sent it, who received it and when. However the main issue is not their capability to do this. Few would be surprised that the NSA could listen in to your phone calls if they wanted. The key issue is that the NSA automatically collected this sort of metadata, and kept it for 30 days. And not only did they collect this data on foreigners, but on American citizens, who are protected by the US constitution. This is only a short summary of what the NSA is up to, but all in all it seems to constitute an enormous breach of privacy.
The reaction overseas to these revelations was extensive, mainly to the additional disclosure that the NSA had spied on foreign governments, EU offices, and even listened into German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone conversations. European governments complained publicly, while privately acknowledging that this wasn’t hugely surprising. The Brazilian government took enormous offence at the fact that their country was extensively targeted by the NSA, including government communications. However in the US there was less outrage, among the public at least. While the media covered the story in a big way, polls showed that 48% of people supported the metadata collecting policies.
Last Friday (the 17th) President Obama announced changes to these programs. The main changeup is that the NSA will no longer actually hold the information they automatically collect. Instead the data will be held by a third party, and the NSA will need legal permission to access it. This permission is granted by secret courts (these courts already existed to give warrants for surveillance operations such as PRISM). Obama has also ordered that these courts now include an independent privacy advocate. However these courts are still pretty much the opposite of free and open. Their hearings are top secret, and in its years of operation from 1979 over thirty thousand warrants were granted, while 11 were denied.
This is a very 21st century issue, and has two causes, both of which are very recent. The first is what drives this collection of data, and that is the fear of terrorism. Since 9/11 the American public and the American government has been terrified of terrorism. The public has been kept in a constant state of fear for something that is a relatively minor threat to daily life. Simple gun violence kills far more Americans each year than 9/11 did. Yet the risk of terrorism is still used to justify this sort of surveillance. The BBC quotes a law professor as saying “Has the NSA overreached? Almost certainly. Have these surveillance programs saved lives? So we are told. Between the risk of overreaching and the risk of terrorism, which is worse? Easy.” 12 years later, al-Qaeda is still achieving its aim of inspiring terror.
Yet the government, seen as stoking these fears, is also terrified of being blamed for the next terrorist attack. After 9/11 the intelligence agencies were slammed for not coordinating their efforts and preventing the attack. They seem to have decided that being accused of invading privacy is less of a problem than the risk of being blamed for another attack.
The other 21st century cause is the incredible rate of technological development. With better ways of spying being invented every year, enormous power is being dropped into the laps of the people running the NSA. This rate of change combined with the pressure to prevent terrorism means that they will say yes to everything, without stopping to consider the consequences of changing privacy in this way. This changing technology has also made us more used to the idea of companies like Google and Facebook knowing our lives in incredible detail, which explains some of the public apathy at what the NSA knows. The difference of course is that Google and Facebook can’t send armed police to blow down your door based on what you view on the internet (yet).
This trend of increased government surveillance is unlikely to change. It’s simply too hard for governments to say no, and the lack of public scrutiny of these programs mean they can get away with anything. While the US is no dictatorship, in 2014 the resemblance to 1984 is hard to dismiss.