By now you’ve undoubtedly heard about the National Security Agency’s collection and monitoring of billions  of Americans’ phone records and internet activity from nine of the largest US internet service providers in attempts to root out terrorism.  Ever since the story was reported in The Guardian, the program has been met with outrage from legislators and the public alike. Rand Paul, one of the most vocal critics, has called it an “extraordinary invasion of privacy” and “an assault on the Constitution.” Paul has even floated the possibility of challenging the program in the Supreme Court.  The Obama administration has defended the program as a balancing act, saying the public “can’t have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.” National Director of Intelligence James Clapper has said that the program directly helped in foiling two well-publicized terror plots in 2009.

This disclosure brought several legal questions to the forefront of public discussion. First and foremost, what, if any, kind of prosecution is the 29-year-old contractor responsible for the disclosure going to face? He claims his motives were not to harm national security in any way. He says he was motivated simply by the belief that the public deserved to know the breadth of this program. He’s currently in Hong Kong, hiding in fear of extradition to the United States. The potential prosecution raises a few key issues.  Some have speculated that the government could be wary to prosecute, fearing further disclosure of government secrets at trial and potential public sentiment in favor of the whistle-blower.

These disclosures have also stoked discussion on how exactly the NSA was able to carry out the program. The sheer quantity of data originally made it impossible for the agency to sift through it effectively. But that was before the explosion of software advances aimed at managing “big data.” To deal with its “big data,” the NSA adopted a software program (originally developed by Yahoo!) called “Hadoop.” Companies like Twitter and Facebook also use the technology. The NSA used Hadoop to analyze the massive amount of data collected and to spread the task over hundreds of computers, essentially eliminating the need for a huge supercomputer for analysis. One former US official claims the program allows the NSA to successful predict attacks 60 to 70% of the time. These technological advances are helping to satisfy Americans’ growing demand to access the internet and social media, but, as we can see, they also raise very serious privacy concerns.

President Obama claims that we cannot have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy. Therefore, the question we must answer is: Where should the balance be struck?

–Thomas McFarland

Image Source: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

2 Responses to NSA Disclosures Bring Privacy vs. Security Debate Back to Forefront

  1. Mike says:

    Another alternative to striking a balance is just putting restrictions on this sort of monitoring to alleviate the privacy concerns in the first place. For example, you could completely anonymize the data being sent from the phone companies or ISPs to the NSA. NSA computers would go through internet or phone records, but wouldn’t know who the information belonged to. Only when there was a “hit” related to terrorist activity could the NSA be able to get identifiable information. Combine that with sufficient standards for what constitutes a “hit,” and the NSA will have access to very little identifying information.

    The other thing that bothers me is that people seem so concerned that companies are giving this information to the NSA. Why aren’t people as concerned that companies have all this information in the first place?

  2. Emily Green says:

    Great point about needing a balance to be struck. While it’s true we can’t have 100% security and 100% privacy, it seems that what has most struck a nerve with the country is that we weren’t given a choice between the two. I think the secrecy is what has caused the greatest uproar.

    I also find it interesting the grassroots movement that has developed around this issue: Restore the Fourth.