The Risks Of Security

Can we justify pervasive surveillance without democratic accountability?

Opinion | Philippe Schennach | September 2013

Americans were deeply shaken after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. In spite of the country’s long tradition of civil liberties, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center changed perceptions, and giving up free speech and the right to privacy was seen as a fair trade for the promise of security. What had been viewed as illegal, or even Orwellian, was accepted as a necessary evil to protect American lives.

Recent revelations about the far-reaching surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) on American citizens have brought this dilemma back to the fore. And it’s useful to compare what the NSA has been telling the public about its activities with what we now know from information released by, among others, former NSA analyst Edward Snowden.

Here, as with other fundamental social questions, proportionality is key. Does the threat of terrorism warrant the large amount of information collected and stored by an organisation that lacks safeguards and democratic accountability?


Proportionality is key

Dramatic events are flashy and attention grabbing. Although only 17 Americans died in terror attacks last year compared to more than 30,000 who died from gun violence, the former receives considerably more media attention and carries far more emotional weight.

However devastating such attacks, prevention also has a price. Closing the borders would probably decrease terrorist attacks. But the cost would simply be too high.

For nearly a century, the NSA and its predecessors have been expanding secret and illegal surveillance of American and non-American alike. But what may be worse, the agency’s abuses risk diverting us from the deeper implications and greater dangers of pervasive government surveillance.

When people fear the government is watching them, they become reluctant to exercise democratic freedoms, to attend political rallies or criticise government policy. Even if you have done nothing wrong, you can still fear exposure. There are many things we do and say in private, the intimate details of our lives shared with friends and family, which we don’t want exploited. According to a study by Pew Research in July, for the first time since 9/11, Americans are now more worried about civil liberties abuses than terrorism. And 70% believe that the government uses the data it collects "for purposes other than investigating terrorism".

If the NSA’s protective measures were indeed effective, then why is there an absence of criminal prosecutions through NSA-acquired information?


The problem of privacy

It’s clear that the right of privacy shouldn’t trump all other claims. A police officer may get a court-order to search someone’s house if they have grounded suspicions of illegal activity. But in 2005 The New York Times revealed that the Bush administration had been bypassing the court for a programme of illegal wiretapping.

Although we don’t know how often the government’s surveillance powers have been abused, we know enough to be worried: According to, the Department of Homeland Security has a policy of spying daily on protesters associated with Occupy Wall Street. The New York Times reported that the "Bush White House sought damaging personal information on a prominent American critic of the Iraq war in order to discredit him." These people represent no terrorist or criminal threat but rather a threat to the status quo – something the agency seems hell-bent on protecting.

The freedom of the press has also come under fire. David Miranda, partner of the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald who published the documents leaked by Snowden, was held at Heathrow for nine hours under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act of 2000. Greenwald responded: "To detain my partner … while denying him a lawyer, and then seize large amounts of his possessions, is clearly intended to send a message of intimidation to those of us who have been reporting on the NSA."


O’ big bother

Although, there is no direct parallel to George Orwell’s Big Brother – the two-way screens that spout propaganda while monitoring your every action – within the U.S. security apparatus, it is certainly reminiscent of 1984, where "there was no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment."

Snowden has become the eighth leaker to be charged with espionage since Barack Obama took office in 2009, far more than any previous administration.

"History’s verdict on Snowden will turn on whether he got the balance right," wrote Adam Cohen recently in Time, "whether it turned out that we were more at risk of becoming a surveillance state than we were of terrorism."

The Snowden leaks have launched a very passionate debate about surveillance and about the moral and legal implications of an unchecked national security state. Considering the cost to society, these are the right questions to ask.

Philippe Schennach is TVR Online Editor and a regular contributor to The Vienna Review. He holds a BA in Politics and International Studies from Warwick University, and is completing an MA in East Asian Society and Economy. 

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