Column | Feb. 11

Surprisingly mild reaction to NSA surveillance

One of the legacies 2013 will leave behind, as Andrea Peterson wrote recently in The Washington Post, is that it was “the year that proved your paranoid friend right.” Since January of last year, we’ve learned that the National Security Agency is collecting massive amounts of phone call metadata, emails, location information of cell phones and is even listening to Xbox Live. Shocking as this obviously was to me, as a citizen of the country of “We the People,” one founded on civil liberties, what was perhaps more shocking was how mild the reaction of many Americans was. While polls showed that a small majority of U.S. citizens opposed the NSA’s collection of phone and Internet usage data, after months of reassurances by the President that the programs would be reformed and used responsibly, the numbers seem to have changed (or at least, the story seems to be dying down).

The problem here is that a story like this shouldn’t ever go away, not until the sought reforms are accomplished or at least until we as a society reach an informed consensus about the core issues at stake. Every day that we wait, every day that such programs are allowed to continue without public scrutiny or reform, is a day in which rights are unduly sacrificed without the informed consent of the public.

Personally, I wouldn’t have found it as bad if these programs had existed in public. If there had been a public debate about their existence and a democratic way by which the NSA was given such authority over us, it could have been at least easier to swallow. What bothers me most about the whole NSA story is that, without Snowden and his large, repeated leaks to the press, we would never have known that all this is going on. The government never planned on telling anyone, and it was the intention of the administration to keep these programs completely secret from the American people, presumably forever. They were designed, on paper and in practice, to be secret programs run by a secretive organization with no transparency. The programs were approved by a secret court that represents only one side, has no way of independently verifying what that one side says, keeps decisions secret and only rejects .3 percent of all program proposals (although many requests are modified before being approved). That, almost more than the programs themselves, is what scares me. As Americans, we have a right to know, on a general level that doesn’t compromise operational security, what the government of the people is doing. I absolutely don’t need to know the names of the terrorists being targeted or the locations being monitored, but I have the right to know that the government is doing such things. Nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed citizenry, as Jefferson once said, and transparency is the most basic foundation of that ideal.

Furthermore, once the cat was out of the bag, a series of lines was drawn in the sand. The NSA wasn’t paying attention to domestic calls or to Americans, we were told; the programs were limited in their application only to our enemies, not our allies; the government wasn’t listening to anyone’s phone, just getting metadata. But time and again, as if like clockwork, each and every one of these arbitrarily defined lines was crossed. We found out not only that the NSA was not only getting domestic phone call metadata but that it was also doing so for hundreds of millions of us. We found out that cell phone information was being batch-collected on hundreds of millions of people in the European Union. We found out that not only was the NSA listening to some phone calls abroad, but it was also listening to the Chancellor of Germany’s personal cell phone. Every time we were promised that this new revelation or that was the final one, that each new boundary was the real one they had meant all along, it was revealed to be a lie. Mutual trust between the republic and its citizens that is now so lacking is exactly what would be needed in excess for such programs to continue in the future. The biggest problem here, on a larger level than the existence of the NSA programs, is the lack of long-lasting, results-oriented debate over the merits and costs these programs have for our society.

So if there’s one thing I’ll remember about 2013, it’s not only that the paranoid people were right but also that shockingly few of us cared.

Ryan Dukeman is a freshman from Westwood, Mass. He can be reached at rdukeman@princeton.edu.

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