Reform Government Surveillance

Craig Timberg, Washington Post:

The uncommonly unified front — featuring companies, such as Google and Microsoft, that compete fiercely on business matters — underscored the deep alarm among technology leaders over revelations that the National Security Agency has collected user data far more extensively than the companies understood, in many cases with little or no court oversight.

In a letter to U.S. leaders published in several newspapers Monday, the coalition calls for an end to bulk collection of user information — such as e-mail, address books and video chats — and for the enactment of significant new protections when courts consider specific surveillance requests.

From the letter:

We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide. The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for a change.

It’s an awfully complex issue for the reason cited above: governments should protect their people. This has been accomplished through clandestine means for millennia. Once upon a time, phone taps were required to be specific. Law enforcement was required to know the number before requesting a warrant to intercept the line. Now, it’s like all of our phones are being tapped and a warrant is required to access the data. Data which, by the way, has already been collected and an automated warrant tool which, frequently, requires barely any human interaction.

Let’s assume for a minute that these broad and repeated violations of our right to privacy have actually managed to save lives. How many prevented attacks are required for this to seem worthwhile? Would it be worth sacrificing our entire right to privacy to prevent the death of a single human being? That’s, understandably, a hard question to answer; I don’t necessarily think there’s a “correct” answer, or even a logical opinion for this one.

The above is, of course, under the assumption that the United States is always under threat of attack. To what extent is that true? I wouldn’t be surprised if the US sees more potential external threats than, say, Belgium. But perhaps the US also faces many more internal threats which cannot be neutralized because the NSA swears — hand on heart — that it doesn’t monitor US communications. This is, of course, because they ostensibly abide by the Fourth Amendment, which protects against search and seizure without a warrant. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights have been held up as an example of human rights affordances and protections, to which I ask: “So why are non-American humans undeserving of being protected according to these rights? Shouldn’t the US be strong enough to treat others in accordance with their own laws?”.

These are all questions which I wish there were answers, easy or hard. I don’t necessarily think there’s any way to simplify this issue, though. I think this is tricky. That’s why I’m interested in the outcome of these eight major tech companies unifying against these surveillance capabilities. Perhaps it will continue the dialogue to create the meaningful reform that’s so desperately needed. I am optimistic.