Sunday, July 7, 2013

Snowden, the NSA and Why Americans Don’t Care

While trolling through Buzzfeed’s list of best signs from the July 4th protests and the comments sections of various articles on the NSA/Snowden story, I’ve witnessed bold and unafraid Americans speaking up against injustice and government overreach. One of the more ironic signs spelled out the NSA acronym as ‘New Stasi Agency,’ a reference to the intelligence apparatus of East Germany that sought to 'know all.' Additionally, many readers commented on and expressed outrage toward the unprecedented nature of recently exposed U.S. surveillance programs. It’s good to know that people take seriously issues such as unwarranted seizure of citizens’ metadata and secret courts.

Courtesy of Buzzfeed
Not seriously enough, as it turns out. New insights keep piling up with minimal reaction from the American populous: the FISA court’s precedent-setting decisions for intelligence gathering, gag orders preventing tech companies (Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google) from speaking of government requests for user data, general secrecy surrounding the NSA, FISA and the latter’s trove of jurisprudence that remains largely out of sight. No legislation is on the table calling for accountability and transparency. No one is flooding the streets and their representative’s office demanding explanation or remedy. Instead, a few protests dotted America on its birthday. No one seems to care.

Are there really millions of Americans with child pornography who are afraid to speak up for fear of NSA reprisal? Are there really millions of Americans who send dirty texts and e-mails to their extra-marital partners? Are we all running dog fighting rings and communicate with our co-conspirators via mobile devices and the Internet? The reality of America’s complacency in this scandal is shocking and perhaps inexcusable, and it begs the question, why aren’t people doing anything about it?

First, some context. Just two years ago, as leaked by Edward Snowden in secret NSA documents, President Obama ended an NSA program enacted in 2001 during the Bush Administration. The FISA--Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court-- court received a mandate to be renewed every 90 days that allowed the NSA to collect e-mail and Internet metadata from millions of Americans. Although the content of
NSA Headquarters.
e-mails was kept private, their correspondances remained subject to collection. The recent closure of the program, officials concluded, was due to it's ineffectiveness. Government search warrant requests--granted or not--and FISA court orders remain largely out of public view.

This Internet metatdata collection program might have ended, but the government's snooping hasn't. Edward Snowden's whistle-blowing is revealing an unprecedented situation, but the media's portrayal of him is largely about the diplomatic mess he's caused flying from Hawaii to Hong Kong to Moscow seeking political asylum. Many media outlets have also downplayed Snowden's findings by focusing its coverage on his whereabouts. Emphasis also rests on the question of his identity and intentions: is he conducting espionage or a whistle-blower? What's left are distracting angles, which mask the bigger, more complex issues. Rather than focus on more important conversations of privacy, transparency, accountability and constitutionality, we're getting diluted answers with a reality show twist. 

Aside from the media, other factors have facilitated American complacency toward these revelations. One of the factors is the prevailing ethos in the U.S. toward national security. It is widely held that Americans generally agree with trading some civil liberties in exchange for a degree of security. 'Well if you have nothing to hide...' the argument goes, but that doesn't really reflect the gravity and pervasiveness of the state spying programs. Or the limits to this tradeoff. Since 9/11 this mindset has only grown stronger, perhaps even more so since the Boston bombings, and it doesn't leave a lot of room for questioning the status quo, especially given media distraction. 

Party politics play a role in this, too. I remember the outrage among liberals surrounding Bush's Patriot Act yet few are condemning the greater size and scope of NSA surveillance programs under the current Democratic Administration. President Obama's only real statement on the matter was in a prerecorded interview where he cited the FISA court's
Political cartoon by John Cole.
existence as proof
that the NSA's seizure of millions of Verizon phone records is transparent. OK, we know the judges on the panel and the existence of the court, but we don't know what decisions are being made or if there's sufficient oversight. How is that transparent?

As more and more details of U.S. surveillance leak out, there's definitely cause for alarm. Is anger accumulating? It doesn't appear to be. Some even say these revelations don't constitute breaches of our Fourth Amendment constitutional right because of evolving definitions of 'reasonable expectation of privacy' and 'searches.' But that's not getting to the core of the problem. How extensive are these programs? To what extent is the type and amount of metatdata being collected reasonable? I'm not suggesting all of our national security strategies be laid out for everyone to see, but the lack of disclosures stunting public scrutiny just doesn't cut it. With all of the different news angles, the White House's inadequate explanation and Obama's bold policy push for the environment at a time when he could be leading the security/freedom debate, there's no wonder why most Americans are indifferent, confused or sitting still.

I can't help but think these issues will slowly drift into obscurity just like the gun control debate after Sandy Hook, although there have been legal challenges to the NSA  programs that will at least keep these conversations ripe in the public discourse. Despite this, the Snowden and NSA stories have the disadvantage of being politically bipartisan in that neither party really wants to address them. Serious conversations about the limits to spying will likely continue to be watered down and unfocused, steering and obscuring the public debate and facilitating Americans' complacency. Will there be an American Awakening in the foreseeable future?

We've got to demand and lead honest and frank discussions on multiple levels, with an eye to the human rights viewpoint, to address these unchecked, opaque surveillance practices. We also need greater courage, longer attention spans and more people rethinking conventional wisdom when it comes to questions of freedom and national security.

Are we really willing to accept the gradual erosion of our privacy by programs whose efficacy is measured in the dark?

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