About June 2014
We mostly know the story, but it bears repeating: One year ago this week, Glenn Greenwald wrote a news story that would change the world forever. In it, we learned that the National Security Agency had been secretly collecting enormous amounts of telephone metadata on what were presumably ordinary American citizens. The agency had done so without a warrant and without suspicion of any indiviudal person. The revelation changed forever how Americans think about national security, privacy, and civil liberties in the digital age.
More revelations soon followed. Among many others, these included NSA surveillance of web activity, mobile phone location data, and the content of email and text messages. The NSA also conducted many highly embarrassing acts of surveillance against allied or benign world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the conclave that recently elected Pope Francis. It had subverted commonly used encryption systems. It had co-opted numerous tech companies in its plans. Its leaders had repeatedly lied to, or at the very least misled, the U.S. Congress.
How far should surveillance go? What has been the value of the information gained? What have we given up in the process? What are the risks, should malign actors ever get their hands on the controls of the system?
We are able to ask these questions today because of one individual: Edward Snowden, a systems administrator for the NSA who chose to make public the information to which he had access. We have no choice now but to debate it. That’s simply what democracies do whenever such momentous information becomes public.
Joining us at Cato Unbound this month are four individuals with extensive knowledge in the fields of national security and civil liberties: Cato Senior Fellow Julian Sanchez, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Benjamin Wittes, Georgetown University Professor Carrie F. Cordero, and independent journalist Marcy Wheeler. Each brings a somewhat different perspective on the matters at hand, and we welcome them all to what is sure to be a vigorous debate.
One year after the Edward Snowden NSA revelations, Julian Sanchez reviews what we know and where the public policy debate now stands. He finds that we know incomparably more about telephone and Internet surveillance, and that this knowledge has provoked a significant backlash: The American public, tech companies, and foreign publics and governments have all come increasingly to demand reform. A real debate is underway today, one as we have never seen before. In particular, we now ask the question: What are the consequences of misusing the system, and, if misuse ever arrives, will it then be too late to do anything about it?
Benjamin Wittes argues that the NSA is indeed powerful, perhaps disturbingly so. But what matters most are the legal restraints and authorizations for these programs’ use. Wittes rejects the idea that the United States should unilaterally disarm itself in an international cyber arms race; he would prefer to discuss the specific contours of the rules for digital surveillance. Much as the Fourth Amendment has successfully restrained conventional police, constitutional and legal safeguards should be adequate to protect us from the NSA.
Carrie Cordero reviews the legal safeguards under which the NSA acts. She finds that they are in general adequate, and that subverting them would require either a large-scale conspiracy or massive incompetence by our elected officials. The NSA’s programs target foreigners, who have no constitutional protections, and not U.S. citizens. The agency’s self-reported legal noncompliance rate is exceptionally low, and members of Congress, who have access to classified information about the NSA, have in general signaled their unconcern. While discussion of safeguards can be useful, these safeguards are well in place and generally functioning as they should be.
Marcy Wheeler describes how the overseas storage of U.S. persons’ data provides a means of conducting domestic surveillance: In general, the lack of clear national boundaries on the Internet profoundly compromises all those laws drafted with national boundaries in mind. In particular, the oversight that would ordinarily apply to domestic surveillance fails when U.S. persons’ data can be mined overseas. The fallout of this and other surveillance operations has been costly to the U.S. economy, which depends on the high-tech sector. Much damage has also been done to U.S. soft power abroad, in that foreigners are much less apt to trust either the U.S. government or U.S. corporations. Lastly, the security benefits so far appear to have been negligible.
Related at Cato
Cato Policy Report: “Decoding the Summer of Snowden,” by Julian Sanchez, November/December 2013
Conference: “NSA Surveillance: What We Know, What to Do About It,” October 9, 2013