PRISM: Real Choices Ahead

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“You can’t have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

President Barack Obama

We are at a crossroads.

Edward Snowden’s exposé on government surveillance tactics has revealed to the American public the extent to which their government is willing to go to collect information for security purposes. PRISM, the governmental data gathering source, has the power to access virtually any electronic communication method. Increasingly, internet privacy appears to be a misnomer.

The people are outraged. Their voices ring clearly: internet platforms are crowded with denouncements of the administration and Obama’s popularity has suffered a precipitous 11 point decline within the past month, the largest drop since he took office. Businesses that participated by giving the government access to their data have not so much run from the scandal as sprinted. Facebook wrote in a press release that they do not “provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers.” Similar statements have been made by Yahoo!, Google, and Microsoft. Clearly, to be touched by PRISM is to be touched by public relations death.

Yet those loudest voices are actually in the minority. According to a Pew Research Poll released on June 10th, 56 percent of the public think that the NSA’s extraordinary actions were acceptable against just 41 percent that find their actions unacceptable. Were this election, the NSA would be beating Snowden by a landslide.

The issue the United States now faces is the most important civil rights question of the twenty-first century: how do we measure the importance of the right to privacy against national security? The answer will define policy doctrine for decades.

The case for privacy is difficult to make. Our collective intuition screams to save life when possible, and PRISM has almost certainly saved lives. Obama did not wake up one morning and decide to play the lead role in an Orwellian nightmare. He, and the bipartisan Congressional minority that approved the program, must have very good reason to believe the collection of data somehow benefits the country. PRISM has, according to the NSA director, contributed to stopping over forty-five terrorist attacks in the past dozen years. Almost four terrorist attacks per year is an impressive track record.

Compared to that, privacy does very little. The right to privacy saves no lives. It does not stop terrorism or prevent wars. It is not sexy. It is not alluring. Most importantly and devastatingly, it is not directly protected through the Constitution. In fact, it is not exactly clear what privacy is or how we are supposed to defend it.

Why, then, is security a right worth protecting?

From a sweeping macroscopic perspective, the answer lies in social advancement. Society would not be ideal if every person marched in step, following every random law and ordinance that manages to make it through the legislative process. If we all fell in line, like so many toy soldiers, our society would be neat and orderly—but we would never progress. Many of our truly great social rights advancements have come from those coloring outside of the lines: the Underground Railroad, Gandhi’s March to the Sea, Freedom Riders and sit-ins were all examples of civil disobedience. And oddly, many of the worst atrocities came at the behest of governments: slavery, the Armenian Massacre, the German Holocaust, genocide in Darfur, and South African Apartheid. Fighting these crimes took courage, vision, and hope. It also took secrecy.

The United States is not Nazi Germany. The government is (probably) not currently using its database to wage war against its own citizens. You should still, however, be wary of governmental abuse. The Guantanamo Bay detention facility serves as a reminder that should it choose to, the United States can easily ignore rights even when those rights are enshrined by international treaties. Our right to exist outside an iron grip of law is why privacy matters.

Privacy is not precisely a right worth protecting on its own; however, privacy is vital to the protection of all our rights. This is a very broad argument, but it is an important one—much is made of our personal rights, but privacy also remains as a check against the government. Ask Egypt whether that is important.

5 comments

  1. Sorry, I like your writing, but, I couldn’t disagree more about Snowden’s NSA release. My son is in the military & the thought that he could sacrifice his life supposedly defending the American Constitutional rights while our government flushes them down the toilet isn’t o.k. with me. I am grateful to Snowden for snagging those documents so there is absolute proof I can bring to my elected representatives when I make my rounds trying to put an end to this horrific government overreach and abuse.

    As for the “war on terrorism”, its a cover. Collecting everyone in this nation’s phone info and HEALTH RECORDS isn’t going to make anyone safe. I just wrote a post with my opinion. You are VERY welcome there. I have thick skin and welcome differing opinions.

    I’m happy to have found your site.

  2. I appreciate your input. I think that you are correct to some degree–there certainly seems to be overstep in data taken. However, I am also sympathetic to reasoning that drives the administration’s decisions. Ultimately, I support our right to privacy over safety as I conclude here.

    Disclaimer: I am somewhat ambivalent to the issue–not because I am uninformed, but because I believe that jumping to conclusions is never helpful and I do not think I have developed a robust enough argument to argue too vehemently. I will be glad to read your opinion and hopefully gain a fresh perspective in the ongoing debate.

  3. That’s my favorite Ben Franklin quote PoliticalConnection! And again, Rawls, I like the way you write and appreciate that you are giving consideration to every side. I’ll be back and look forward to reading more of your articles.

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