NSA

How Much Surveillance Can We Accept?

Surveillance advocates must demonstrate that they're worthy of trust

|

Three months after Edward Snowden's leaks began to reveal the extent of the U.S.'s mass surveillance program, "serious people" are beginning to make the case that it's time for the outrage and indignation to subside and give way to a "national conversation" about the future of surveillance. So has the moment come for us to consider how much surveillance we can accept?

The national debate we're supposed to have is routinely framed as one about choosing how much privacy and liberty to give up in exchange for security, not about whether such a tradeoff is necessary at all.

"It's important to understand that you can't have 100 percent security and then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience—we're going to have to make some choices as a society," President Obama has said. And echoing him, former NSA director Michael Hayden last week said: "The question is how much of your privacy, and your convenience and your commerce do you want your nation's security apparatus to squeeze in order to keep you safe. And it is a choice that we have to make."

But do we really have to make that choice? When he was running for president, Obama criticized the Bush Administration for "putting forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide" when it came to illegal wiretapping. Civil libertarians tend to agree with Senator Obama, which is why we have not been interested in engaging in compromise. Instead, we're more interested in addressing the abuses that have been revealed, and in ending the bulk collection of data, as Representatives Amash and Conyers and Senators Wyden and Udall have suggested.

To many in the intelligentsia, though, those are not "serious proposals" worthy of our "national conversation." Because civil libertarians won't play within the liberty-vs-security frame, we are called to task for not being constructive or for being naive.

The Wall Street Journal recently editorialized in frustration that the NSA's declassification of FISA Court opinions did not lead civil libertarians to engage in a debate about better ways to conduct oversight of the surveillance program, but merely to engage in more bellyaching. The Journal went on to argue that the NSA "can police itself" and that the courts should be removed from FISA oversight altogether (a proposal, by the way, that does fit within the liberty-tradeoff frame). It concluded in exasperation, "Or let's hear a better proposal from the left-right antisurveillance coalition, or even an idea."

Probably the most thoughtful argument for moving past the question of whether we should have mass surveillance programs, and instead focus on the question of how they are to be run, comes from Thomas Rid, a reader in war studies at Kings College London and author of the excellent new book Cyber War Will Not Take Place.

"Suggesting that all secrecy is bad is plainly naïve," Rid recently wrote in Slate. "Instead there is a moral case to be made for open democracies to have the most capable intelligence agencies, operating lawfully with robust oversight mechanisms. No liberal mind can want the NSA to sit in Beijing or Moscow."

The NSA may have overstepped its bounds, Rid concedes, but that's an argument for better oversight, not for shutting down bulk data collection altogether, which would hand over an advantage to the U.S.'s geopolitical rivals. And if we're going to have a signals intelligence capability that necessarily implicates domestic data, that means we must have a debate not about its existence, but about its reach.

"Spies cannot drive this debate. Neither will governments, for fear of stoking a fire and provoking even more revelations," Rid argues. "It is therefore the responsibility of intellectuals and public experts to add balance and nuance to a shrill debate."

In that spirit, Rid recently asked me: assuming for a moment that we are indeed going to have a mass surveillance program at the end of the day, what would it take to get libertarians to engage in a serious discussion of its reach? I told him it would take at least two things.

First, there would have to be consequences for those who abused our trust. For example, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper point-blank lied to Congress and the American people, and yet he hasn't been fired. If the DNI can lie to Congress and get away with it, what is the point of debating the kind of oversight to which he will be subject?

The same goes for NSA Director Keith Alexander who has presided over an agency that has engaged in systematic illegalities and has misled courts, Congress, and the American people about those abuses. As long as these men remain unpunished, civil libertarians will have little faith that a system of oversight can work.

Second, before civil libertarians can be expected to consider compromise, they will have to believe that their interlocutors, especially in the administration and the NSA, are operating in good faith. As it is, we were deceived about the existence and extent of these programs, so why should we trust the president's sincerity when he says that he "welcomes the debate"? Indeed, he's continued to give us every reason to question it.

How can we be expected to engage with a president that promises to convene an independent panel of "outside experts" to review the government's surveillance programs, and then proceeds to stack it with insiders? And how can we trust that very panel when at its first meeting it segregates civil libertarians from other interested parties and then only some panel members attend the separate meeting?

Maybe there is a case to be made that abolishing bulk data collection outright is against our national interest, and that we need to figure out how to efficiently trade privacy for security, subject to robust oversight. But until there are good reasons to trust both the oversight mechanisms and the processes for their formulation, "serious people" can't seriously expect civil libertarians to entertain the idea.

Advertisement

NEXT: Reporters Say JonBenet Ramsey's Parents Were Indicted by Grand Jury in 1999

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I love these “national conversations.”

    “Are you doing broad surveillance of the American people?”

    “No, of course not, you paranoid teabagger!”

    “Wait, Edward Snowden just revealed you did do extensive surveillance.”

    “He’s a a traitor! Anyway, 9/11!”

    “But…”

    “Shut up while I’m conversing at you!”

    1. Yeah, conversation always means lecture.

      1. Start working at home with Google. It’s the most-financialy rewarding I’ve ever done. On tuesday I got a gorgeous BMW after having earned $7439 this last month. I actually started five months/ago and practically straight away was bringin in at least $74, per-hour. visit this site right here http://www.Pow6.com
        WORK LESS EARN MORE!

    2. Not to mention we are a nation of morons within a world full of retards.

      Does Jerry actually believe enough people to make a difference are going to take away valuable time watching American Idol to participate in deciding whether we shall accept a surveillance state as a way of life?

      Not to mention, as long as it’s a Democrat creating a police, or surveillance, state the entertainment industry celebrity royalty elite will never signal the countless legions, that make up their brainless cult of followers, to resist.

  2. Law-abiding Americans, who believe in common-sense measures to prevent terrorism, will accept surveillance as a necessary tool in the modern world. Let us be clear, thoughtful conversations have produced a targeted tool to protect our freedom and our children.

    TLDR: Liberty is doomed.

  3. How Much Surveillance Can We Accept?

    How much you got?

    /Murica

    1. A camera on every corner, it’s working out so well in London.

      1. Look, SCORPION STARE is necessary in the event of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

        1. Another Angleton brown-noser.

    2. Our new national anthem: “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clank Your Chains.”

  4. First, there would have to be consequences for those who abused our trust.

    Actually, there can’t.

    You see, if these people faced consequences for their misdeeds, then the government would have to admit that people within it abuse our trust. If that were to happen, then trust in the government would be jeopardized. So they must pretend like no abuses ever occur so that they appear trustworthy.

    It’s the same reason why police shootings are always justified. If a shooting was ruled as not justified, then people might not trust the police. So all their actions while in uniform must be justified, even when they are obviously not, so they appear to be trustworthy.

    FYTW

    1. +1 FBI Review

  5. Well, I figure that government officials should be followed and eavesdropped upon pretty much nonstop, given their abysmal track record.

    1. I firmly believe that we should install surveillance cameras in every congressional office, with free and open public access to the live feeds and archives.

      Surely they won’t object if they aren’t doing anything wrong.

      1. I have long felt that if the people were free to hear what their “public servants” really thought about them, our way too huge government problem would be solved quite quickly.

        1. So, what we really need is to release hundreds of thousands of flying nanobots that broadcast information about each government official.

          Release the bots!

        2. our way too huge government problem would be solved quite quickly.

          How so? What could people do about it?

          1. Tar feathers and a rail.

          2. They could vote for the other Team, and then all the problems would go away forever!

          3. “You don’t hold elected office in this town. You run it because people think you do. They stop thinking it; you stop running it.”

            1. They run it because they’ve got a gang of armed thugs at their beck and call who can call in reinforcements from surrounding gangs if necessary.

              Consent is not needed when you have firepower.

          4. Vote for someone else? It’s not impossible to change things, at least, not for the moment. As soon as the political class realizes that it can run things without the constitutional facade, however, it will be too late.

            1. Vote for someone else? It’s not impossible to change things, at least, not for the moment.

              It’s way beyond being fixed through the ballot box. It would take amending the constitution, but I don’t think even that would work because it’s not like the thing is followed as it is.

              This would be a start, but I really have no hope.

              1. I really don’t know what would work. I’d like to get more limited government types into office, but can they overwhelm the power-mad folk who gravitate towards those jobs like moths to a light? Seems unlikely, especially given that limited government candidates are much more likely to be principled than their counterparts.

                I’m not sure how we get to a convention without either a mass revolt or a major change in government, Congress in particular. That could happen through state action, too, I suppose.

                1. I’m not sure a convention would be such a good idea. Sure you would want the convention to reaffirm limited government principles, but I could see it backfire with “basic rights” such as health care, food, shelter, internet, and everything else becoming enshrined in the new constitution.

                  1. No, that’s been my fear as well. On the other hand, we’re going down the drain, anyway, so maybe it’s our last real chance to hit the reset button.

        3. All public employees – cops, teachers, politicians – should wear a live action feed camera during working hours. Teacher abusing your kid? Check the feed. Cop abusing a citizen? check the feed. Politician getting blow-jobs? Check the feed. Surveillance state? Fuck Yeah.

      2. The only problem with that is eventually they may forget the cameras are there and go back to business as usual. Which will probably result in Diane Feinstein getting fucked stupid by Chuck “Bitchtits” Schumer and Harry Reid while John McCain fondles himself in corner on a live streaming internet feed.

        1. McCain hasn’t had to fondle himself since Lindsay Graham came to Washington.

          1. You can’t possibly know that, Hugh, Graham does a bang-up job of being on the DL.

  6. America is dead. We are something else now.

    1. Pretty much where I am.

      The government we live under bears only the most superficial resemblance, and that only in places, to that authorized by the Constitution. And that can’t happen unless the changes go clear to the social/cultural bone.

      We are no longer free citizens with a national government of limited enumerated powers divided among three co-equal branches. Its something else now, and I don’t much like it.

      1. In the weeks following 9-11, I told many people that America had just died, it would take a little while for the government to turn into the Soviet Union, but it was all over at that point.

        I got a lot of shit for that.

        1. America was already more or less dead before 9/11. 9/11 just pulled the life support.

          1. Yeah. All the PATRIOT Act did was take powers that law enforcement already had for use against citizens who use unapproved chemicals, and extend those powers to be used against anyone who might distrust the government.

      2. I’ve viewed the last century or so as a long, slow-moving coup. All three branches were/are complicit, as have been many of us–the media, voters, etc.

        1. Yes.

          Lead us into the gilded cage. Feed us; care for us; keep us secure. Amen.

    2. The Rubicon wasn’t crossed with a bang, but with a whimper.

      1. Alea iacta est.

        1. It’s actually supposed to be

          Nanus iactus est

          .

          That ceasar was a weird dude.

          1. What’s that translate to?

            “Lactate for me, baby!”

            or something like that? Kinky…

            1. The dwarf has been thrown.

              Caesar had a thing for dwarfs. During a conquest, he’d advance until his men presented him with a captured dwarf. He’d use the dwarf as a sex slave and the Romans would consolidate and incorporate the captured territury as a province of the Republic.

              When Caesar wanted to go on a war of conquest, he’d ceremonially drown his dwarf in a river at the border of whatever place he wanted to invade and that would be the signal to start the invasion.

              The Belgae had a clever plan to hold off Caesar, they purchased all the dwarfs they could get from Germanic tribes and fostered them throughout their villages. The idea was that regardless of where Caesar invaded, the first village he passed through would have a dwarf.

              However, Caesar wasn’t so easily satisfied. He ordered his soldiers to kill the ugly dwarves and to hide the nice looking ones form his sight until he told them he was ready.

              The Belgae were conquered, and then Caesar had the dwarves brought to him, whereupon he selected the handsomest one and threw the rest into the Meuse.

              That is why Caesar turned back from England and refused to invade Germany; the Belgae had thoroughly dedwarfed the two lands in their unsuccessful defensive plan. He felt there was no point.

              1. His invasion of Rome was kicked off by throwing a Spanish dwarf (how he acquired him is not documented) into the Rubicon.

                1. If we ever figure out time travel, I’m sending joe back to Julius.

          2. you misspelled “Caesar”.

    3. America is dead. We are something else now.

      We’re Europe. Of course I’ve been saying that since… like the early aughts.

      1. I don’t think we are Europe.

        1. I think we are. I posted this in a thread last week that someone said that we’ve abandoned the ideal of the American revolution based upon liberty, and exchanged it for the French revolutionary model of equality.

          Don’t know much about the guy who said it, but I think he nailed it.

          1. Yes, liberals love the model of “equality”, but conservatives don’t. And, conservatives love the model of strict moral codes, but liberals don’t. For decades, these people have fought against each other to impose their own models of proper government on everyone while trying to undermine their counterparts.

            Now, however, both liberals and conservatives essentially demand that the federal government spy on everyone all the time in all places to protect everyone from various bands of ill-funded; ill-equipped, ill-trained ragheads.

            America has been seriously ill, perhaps terminally ill for a long time, but it clearly picked up a virulent new super bug on 9-11.

            1. Yes, a healthy confidant country would’ve shrugged that shit off and moved on.

            2. The security state is enabled by the welfare state. A very, very European thing. Europe has had similar post-9-11 security models for a long time– long before 9/11, but no one talked about them because they have no explicit right to privacy, free speech– 4th amendment protections etc. They’re implied, but not explicit.

              England was demanding that businesses put a box which collected every email sent— and this was demanded YEARS ago, long before Wikileaks was a household name, let along Snowden or Bradley Manning. The only complaint recieved: It’s too expensive. Not one institution asked if it should be done, or if the government had the right. Only that it would impact profits.

            3. And don’t forget England’s pervasive camera-surveillance state. A project started long before 9/11. When the “general welfare” gets elevated to the top priority, everything is allowed.

              1. But England isn’t all or even typical of Europe. Here in Central Europe there is a deep distrust of government and police. Sure it’s combined with people wanting their ‘free’ healthcare and all but it certainly feels less obtrusive than in the US (never been in the UK ‘cept Heathrow).

                1. iBut England isn’t all or even typical of Europe.

                  This is true. However, England has often times displayed more deeply rooted socialistic tendencies than mainland Europe. There are important differences between England and mainland Europe, but both have pervasive welfare states. In some ways, England’s more so.

                  Here in Central Europe there is a deep distrust of government and police.

                  This always perplexes me a bit. I see riots and the like in central Europe over the economy– and they’re labeled as ‘anti-government’ riots, but if you ask what the protesters are demanding, it’s pretty much always a demand for more government. It’s not anti-government, it’s anti-small government.

                  but it certainly feels less obtrusive than in the US (never been in the UK ‘cept Heathrow).

                  This is where I think America has really ramped it up over the last decade.

                  1. If you are talking about those anarchist/socialist/skinhead riots where they go down to the center a smash the windows of a couple McDonalds, yeah they are idiots but I don’t think they are at all typical. In fact we haven’t had those for quite a while. But yeah, there is a pretty strong occupy type pseudo-anarchy, but those people aren’t in love with the state in the same way, at least not here in Central Europe. There are still reverberant memories of communism but yeah, combined with wanting free shit.

                    1. No, I’m talking about the riots taking place in the PIIGS countries. Young twitter-using people who cut dashing figures with hoodies complaining about their pensions.

                  2. but it certainly feels less obtrusive than in the US (never been in the UK ‘cept Heathrow).

                    I will say that back in the 80s Customs at Heathrow was more tense than anything in the U.S. Because of the troubles.

            4. “conservatives love the model of strict moral codes, but liberals don’t.”

              Really? Then where are these restrictions on sodas, cigarettes, etc. coming from?

              1. Conservatives want to ban drugs because it makes your daughter sleep with black men. Liberals want to ban drugs because they make you fat and thus deny the state of valuable production and revenue.

      2. We’re Europe Lite. But definitely not America. That’s for sure.

        1. Guinness Lite – With Lemon!

          Surely, it is, indeed the end times

        2. Except that socialism is less dysfunctional in small rather homogeneous countries. The European Parliament is seeking to fix all that of course, but in general, European countries are much more autonomous than US States. So you have a lot of socialism mixed with things like school vouchers in Sweden, a welfare state combined with a very high ranking on the Economic Freedom Index in Denmark, a general feeling of much more freedom here in Czechia, etc.

        3. I’m waiting for the government ad to turn in our neighbors for not recycling before officially calling Europe. Almost there.

            1. America! Fuck yea!

  7. When he was running for president, Obama criticized the Bush Administration for “putting forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide” when it came to illegal wiretapping.

    It’s only a false choice when someone else does it.

  8. Maybe I missed this in another thread but did Reasonable get weird for anybody else?

    1. Yes. It goes in and out.

      1. That’s what your mom said!

        1. Look, jesse, insults about my promiscuous mother would be more stinging if they came from a dude who actually wants to hump chicks. You really should target my father for better effect.

          1. Not that Epi knows who his father is, of course.

            Because his mom is such a whore, you see.

            1. But, Hugh, she said that you were my father! I think this is the point where you cut off my light saber hand and then I jump into a huge hole/tube/thing.

              1. Sounds like a plan. Hold still, I don’t have much practice with this thing.

                1. So, Hugh, I see that your Schwartz is as big as mine. Now let’s see how you handle it.

              2. Hugh could be your father. But so could everyone else here be.

                1. But so could everyone else here be.

                  That’s not entirely true. While everyone’s had a go with Epi’s mom, the lady-libertarians couldn’t have impregnated her, and I’m sure at least a few of the commentariat are smart enough to have had vasectomies, but everyone else, definitely.

          2. Too easy, and I mean that on multiple levels, Epi. We all know which side of the family you inherited the mayorship of Gaytown from.

  9. uptil I saw the bank draft that said $9401, I didnt believe that…my… friends brother had been truly receiving money part-time on their apple labtop.. there moms best frend had bean doing this 4 only about 17 months and just now cleared the dept on their cottage and bourt a brand new Fiat Multipla. go to website
    ?
    ?http://www.Rush60.com

  10. How Much Surveillance Can We Accept?

    All of it. Believe me. Every… last… drop…

    1. How Much Surveillance Can We Accept?

      All of it. Believe me. Every… last… INCH… fify

  11. What part of “Necessary and Proper” do you bitter-clingerers not understand?

    It’s right there in the Constitution! I thought you loved the Constitution! Do you want the terrorists to win?

  12. This is so fucking depressing.

    Rid recently asked me: assuming for a moment that we are indeed going to have a mass surveillance program at the end of the day, what would it take to get libertarians to engage in a serious discussion of its reach? I told him it would take at least two things…

    I thought your two caveats were spot on, Jerry. But then I have to say, no, Rid, it’s impossible for me to concede that “mass surveillance” programs are “necessary” in any way in a country with the might, money (sort of, for now) and power the US has. So fuck this conversation, NO, there are not any caveats that would make it acceptable, because it’s all so utterly unnecessary.

    which would hand over an advantage to the U.S.’s geopolitical rivals

    Seriously? So…the ChiComms or Russkies are going to steal our DVR technology, or nuke us or something if we don’t surveille every US citizen’s phone calls and email? Really?

    No. So this is an absurd conversation on its face, one we’ll never win, so fuck you NSA and US government, and fuck you, Rid for even thinking about going along with it. I’d rather be “unserious” than suck government cock with my fellow pussy citizens.

  13. OT:

    I don’t really know anything about this guy, but I like what I heard so far.

    Could they be more out of touch?

    Also, this:

    Will Congresses big Obamacare subsidies finally awaken the unwashed masses?

    If we the people cannot force these assholes to stop acting like royalty, then the least we can hope for is that more incumbents lose their jobs than happened in 2010.

    I like that Rand Paul is working on an amendment that disallows congress from exempting themselves from any law. Isn’t that already unconstitutional though?

  14. Tulpa:

    You still a saggy cunt.

  15. balance and nuance

    When I hear those words, I reach for my pistol. I don’t have a pistol, though, so I’m grabbing air.

  16. It’s all “national security interest” hogwash.

    The ONLY legitimate purpose for broad executive spying is that foreign governments lie about their intentions, capabilities, and plans. Finding the truth is important to forming an effective defense.

    The ONLY legitimate purpose for domestic surveillance is to prosecute a criminal act, under the “probable cause” criteria determined by a judge. Anything else is a gross violation of every person’s right to be secure in their … papers and effects. The Fourth Amendment means what it clearly says.

  17. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper point-blank lied to Congress and the American people, and yet he hasn’t been fired shot in the face in the middle of the national mall on CSPAN.

    FTFY.

    That threatening some bureaucratic petty tyrant with the loss of his job is the most severe form of punishment we can even imagine for engaging in extra-constitutional spying and then perjuring oneself about it pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this “national conversation”.

  18. I would comment, but then i am afraid that the security state would target me. Seriously though, I refuse to pay taxes until this shit ends. I will go to jail like Thoreau, I absolutely 100% refuse to fund this Statist government. The NSA can track my ip address, they know who I am. I am declaring that I will no longer pay 1 fucking penny to support an illegal, totalitarian government who has as a future vision “a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
    Fuck them, they can arrest me right now.

    1. Presumably you don’t work since it is almost impossible to be employed and not pay taxes unless, of course, you are self-employed. Even then, taxes are extremely difficult to avoid. I am self-employed and I pay taxes and not because I want to.

  19. whats the matter pussies? you waiting to see what happens to me? Say it loud, say it proud: Fuck the government, we will no longer pay taxes to support the military-industrial complex, we will not pay to support an illegal executive declaration of war, we will no longer meekly stand by and accept the U.S. shift towards Executive power. Fuck you, I am a Free Man, and I will die Free.

  20. So there it is: the people commenting on reason like to talk big, but truth to tell, they are pussies. not one will stand up and declare “enough”. They talk shit about me, but my IP address is open, the gov can track me if they wish. The rest of you are a bunch of pussies. Talk like a bad ass, but when truth comes to power, you pussy out. Good job guys, YOU are the reason America has become the and of the pussies

  21. my buddy’s aunt makes $83/hour on the internet. She has been laid off for 5 months but last month her pay was $12861 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read Full Report
    http://www.Rush60.com

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.