For the past few months, the major media cycles have focused on, justifiably so, a global pandemic, massive civil unrest and a collapsed economy. However, many stories go under the radar that are worthy of much more attention, such as the recent court ruling based on revelations brought to light by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
In 2013, Snowden leaked information showing the National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on millions of American citizens, foreign nations and even international allies. The information showed the NSA was collecting emails, online activity, private messages and phone call information, including the who, how, where and when involved in each call. The recent court ruling deemed the mass-collecting actions illegal, and possibly unconstitutional. This is a clear win for civil liberties and privacy rights. It’s hard to preserve the freedom of liberty and thought when our private lives are being tracked by the government. However, there is still much to be done on these important issues.
This program is not the only issue. The Patriot Act, passed after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001, gave the federal government de facto omnipotence. Warrantless wiretapping was conducted on millions of innocent civilians and citizens over the course of years and political spying was conducted by the FBI and Department of Defense on peaceful groups such American Civil Liberties Union. Although some reforms have been made to the Act, it still remains broad and vague in its wording. Those that argue in favor of the law say it is necessary to protect our security, but that is also exactly what the NSA claimed in justifying mass-surveillance and warrantless wiretapping. A court ruling shows that was simply false. We mustn’t be so willing to accept security over privacy, and the invasion of our privacy should require a very high burden of proof. If we roll over to any surveillance under the guise of “our protection,” then why don’t we set up a screen in every room, watching our every movement every moment of every day since that would certainly catch more criminals and make us “more safe?” That is because autonomy, freedom and personal expression are only possible if a certain amount of privacy is guaranteed. The surveillance state hinders this.
Another way our data is being tracked is by social media and technology companies. Sites like Facebook and Twitter do not require a subscription in order to be used. That is because these companies are not like traditional enterprises where there is an exchange of money for a good or service. Instead, social media companies do not directly charge users, but sell user data to third parties who advertise on their platforms, targeting ads to the most likely buyers. This is a massive security and privacy risk. In many ways, these corporations know more about us, our interests and our families than we do. We must look at these corporations like how we look at governments, seeing their power over our lives as a similar threat. If we would not trust government servers collecting our data without cause, we should not trust a corporation doing virtually the same thing for profit. If TikTok is such a national security threat that we must ban it because there is a possibility that it may be collecting information on American citizens, how can we justify Google, Facebook and more sites actively working with the U.S. government without our knowledge? Here in the United States, the home of the free, surveillance is only permissible if it is our government conducting it, of course.
Lastly, I would like to make an appeal to a broad political spectrum. The vast majority of Americans believe in the spirit of freedom from tyranny, freedom of speech, freedom to protest, etc. Governments, both past and present, across the globe and here at home, have been guilty of abusing tragedies to engage in mass surveillance, extrajudicial actions and much worse. Censorship and surveillance in China is just one perfect example of this. A right to privacy is necessary to guarantee our freedom and prevent these overreaches. If you agree with that, then protecting privacy is the logical conclusion. I would argue basic privacy protection entails ending the Patriot Act, protecting our privacy from multinational corporations and dismantling the U.S. surveillance apparatus.
Last month, President Trump floated the idea of a pardon of Edward Snowden, largely because his security leak was considered illegal under the Espionage Act. On this issue, let us put down our partisan blinders. The real criminals are the ones who devised the illegal system, not Snowden and others like him for bringing that illegality to light. We should all band together to call for this pardon in the short term, and the dismantling and reconstruction of these systems in the long term.
Seth Gully is a junior triple-majoring in philosophy, politics and law, economics and French.