Transparency and Accountability Regarding Mass Surveillance in the USA
The “digital age” is full of secret doors to hide behind, laws you do not know you are breaking and full of opaque governments that become murkier as the times go on. I believe in a free America and a free world. For this to be possible, we as a country would have to open these doors and call out activities that governments are doing that do not seem like the best moral or legal path. We as citizens of this ever changing free world need to stand up against the lack of transparency and stand up against the tyranny that we are subjected to every day. From opening your laptop to walking down the street, you cannot stop the mass surveillance that would happen to you, and we only know that practices such as these are in place due to the tireless work of “whistleblowers” and hacker groups from around the world. This group is constantly being under attack by the government that is supposed to protect us and our freedom. From secret warrants to secret laws, to hidden targets, the outreach of the modern surveillance system can reach further than any of us could ever imagine. This is a simple call to action, and hopefully an eye-opening to some. We all deserve to know what our government does that could affect us. We deserve to know what laws we are breaking and why activists are being pushed away into prisons. We deserve to know the truth.
In the United States of America, there is a court, called the FISA Court (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court), that was in no way public until 2013. This court had acted, in secrecy, to approve warrants to government agencies that, for any number of reasons, thought it was necessary to do surveillance on someone. They needed to keep the court a secret from the people having the surveillance done on them from knowing that it was happening. A way to explain the FISA courts is how Jennifer Granick and Christopher Springman did in The Daily Beast on 07.24.13 “The bread and butter of the FISC was deciding whether the government had probable cause to believe that a particular person or entity was an agent of a foreign power and was likely to use a particular communications facility such that it was acceptable to spy on that person or facility to get foreign intelligence information.” This court has been approving the mass surveillance of millions of individuals not only in enemy states, or of terrorists, but of regular law abiding citizens here in America. Since Edward Snowden received his trove of documents regarding national surveillance, and the FISA Court was released, the United States government has made some reform. Such as saying publicly that, yes, the court does exist and, that it was used to create warrants to allow mass surveillance in the US and around the world. The government has also come out and released who the current judges are and some of their rulings. The systems that we have in place to conduct surveillance in this nation are shrouded in secrecy. They hide behind these obscure clauses found deep in the law Archives in Washington. These entities are not just the FISA Court, but also the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) the NSA (National Security Agency) The Department of Homeland Security and other numerous agencies. They can hide because of laws enacted such as the PATRIOT Act and legislation similar to it, most of which we as average citizens cannot know about. These archives can be used on most people from around the world and could be used against American citizens.
The government in the United States is quick to denounce hackers and whistleblowers; they are ready to charge them with espionage or aiding the enemy. The court system is keen on throwing these activists into prison for the rest of their lives, and are not above torturing them as seen in the Chelsea Manning case (Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, 2012). The government wants to send a message to these and potential, activists. They want all who could follow the same path to be dissuade and to see the others who were in their position and chose to be on the side of government transparency and to be on the edge of the citizens of the world be imprisoned, such as Chelsea Manning, or stranded in claiming asylum in a nation they never intended to go to, such as Edward Snowden (Michael B Kelley, Business Insider, 2014), or to be under perpetual house arrest, such as Julian Assange (BBC World, 2016). They hope this, paired with their targeted surveillance of potential whistleblowers, will end the forced transparency that we truly need in this country. Some media outlets are quick to call these activists un-American or enemies of the state. I believe the work that these people have done is frankly the most American thing they could have done. A founding principal of the American Constitution is, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”(The United States of America Constitution First Amendment, 1787). The information that has been brought to light by the tireless work of these activists has been detrimental in the ever-changing fight for government accountability and transparency.
The thought posed by some media is that we should not utilize the “stolen,” or hacked, information that is published by sources such as Wikileaks. This is an absurd thought that should not be entertained. The government is quick to push the media, and some of the people, towards ideas such as this as to corral them into submission. The media and govern25ment demonize the activists that bring this information to light; then they move on to demonize the work that the activists release. Both the media and the government are quick to call the work a national security threat or that these people and groups are publishing guarded state secrets. Both claims are made to scare the public into believing that this information is dangerous, could aid the enemy, or that this information could be used to further foreign adversaries or the terrorists. Now, in reality, the greater majority of this stolen, or gathered through hacking information, is used to educate the affected on what has been happening to them, or what rights they thought their government had to respect. This work also can show how far the government’s reach goes. This was expressed in The Wall Street Journal in 2013. The WSJ stated, “The system has the capacity to reach roughly 75% of all U.S. Internet traffic in the hunt for foreign
intelligence, including a wide array of communications by foreigners and Americans. In some cases, it retains the written content of emails sent between citizens within the U.S. and also filters domestic phone calls made with Internet technology, these people say.” (Siobhan Gorman and Jennifer Valentino-Devries, August of 2013). The government is trying its best to dissuade individuals who could release information that would change the effectiveness of this and future regimes. We as “free” citizens have the right and the duty to read through the “stolen” information. These videos and documents were liberated for us; they were released because of the group, or individual, wanted the information to be used and utilized in the fight for a more free nation as a whole. I know that certain organizations such as Wikileaks withhold some more damaging information that they have on world leaders, just in case they get caught or captured this information would be exposed. Now I believe that the hackers and activists were working on getting this information owe it to the world to release all of the information that they receive. We deserve to have a clear message from our government, and if they are not going to give us this clear message, then someone has to. These documents and files need to see the light of day. They need to be shown the public. These documents do not only help Americans they assist the citizens of the world. These files mean a lot to us, it means we can have a bit more transparency, a little more peace of mind, and a small amount of accountability.
American mass surveillance has become more widespread and more intricate over the past decade and has an outreach that is comparable to no other monitoring entity. The term mass surveillance is defined by Privacy International 2016 as, “Mass surveillance is the subjection of a population or significant component of a group to indiscriminate monitoring. It involves a systematic interference with people’s right to privacy. Any system that generates and collects data on individuals without attempting to limit the dataset to well-defined, targeted individuals is a form of mass surveillance.” This means that the US government’s mass surveillance organization, the National Security Agency (NSA), has been collecting and allocating the extensive information that has been gathered through many different paths. Some of these paths include cell-phone companies, internet providers and technology companies. This surveillance is nondiscriminatory and can collect almost everything that an individual does. Through the FISA court and the PATRIOT Act, the government needs little evidence of malicious behavior to “tap into” these records. These files can contain a massive amount of emails, SMS messages, call records, video calls, and I am sure that they collect more than that, but that is what was released.
What it means for a government to be “more transparent.” This is a term put out there quite often by freedom fighters, politicians, and activists, but what does it mean some ask. So, the United States government keeps closely guarded secrets and holds some valuable information regarding other nations. This information could be detrimental to the security of our country or other nation-states. This information could be some things such as the location of so-called “black sites,” where the government has little, to no accountability. When it comes to these so-called “black sites” any amount of transparency is not there at all. The public does not know who is being held there, for how long they would be held there, or what happens there. This is only one simple example of the massive amounts of state secrets that are held by both the State Department and the Defence Department. Other closely guarded secrets are potential conflicts of interest, real reasons for going to war or into a conflict, perhaps certain questionable practices are done by the military or other similar entities.The thought of transparency goes much further than just accountability; it strides as far as a simple trust for the government and associated organizations. Senator John Cornyn said, “I believe that we have to recognize that achieving the true consent of the governed requires something more than just holding elections. What America needs is informed consent. And informed consent is impossible without both a free, responsible press and an open and accessible government.” (Cornyn, 2005). This is an excellent example of how governments and that some persons involved do want to strive for a more transparent government but, they can not, due to government regulations and laws.
It seems simple to imagine what accountability would mean when it comes to government right, perhaps more control, safeguards and more review in documents and sense, yes that is what accountability stands for. I want to take this a bit further by including public review and votes set on laws. I want the government to listen more to the American people I want the government to be forced to hear to us and to be held accountable by us. In the US military, there was little accountability when it comes to active warfare as shown in the 2010 video Collateral Murder, published by Wikileaks and released by Chelsea Manning. This video showed the way US military personnel treated the killing of people while in an active war. Turned out the people, that they very willingly killed, were all innocent people, including journalists and children. This video was horrific to watch, but I believe it is important for people to sit down and watch it. This video alone showed the realness of war and how the soldiers who were put there to protect and serve were treating the situation. We need accountability in government as to keep them on task and to preserve our freedom. We deserve the accountability that could be put in place.
Counter surveillance and spying is one way that the United States defends their mass surveillance of other nations. They can label some of their operations as such due to the possible threat that other countries are spying on our government or us. In the past, it is true that foreign governments have hacked into the United States government and the corporate entities that reside here. The counter spying effort is supposedly aimed at foreign governments, but we cannot be certain of this due to the opaqueness of the program. This is one of the programs that is difficult to regulate and make more transparent. This is due to the obvious statement that it needs to be covert to avoid a confrontation with an opposing government. The major controversy comes when there are talks if the United States had counter surveillance operations aimed at our allies. This is a major problem when dealing with certain nations because they may have the people, technology and capital, necessary to hack into our systems and receive our information as well. These governments could aim at the most sensitive of information that our government holds, such as, but not limited to: military
technologies, personal information such as address information and social security numbers of government workers, nuclear bomb-related material, military operations, and secrets that we hold on other nations. This information, although most of it should be able to be viewed by the public, could be dangerous if only a handful of people know it.
Bureaucracy and language is a way of keeping the people in rose colored glasses. One way to keep the masses suppressed is through wordsmithing and paper dumping. This would be done in a way where when a citizen asks for information on a particular topic, or incident, they would be given an abundance of documents that they would have to sort through to find the original information that they were looking for. This theory and tactic is quite Kafkaesque in the sense of keeping people suppressed by keeping them busy and buried in the work given. Keeping people in long lines to ask simple questions from the government, and once the question is answered, the individual does not fully comprehend the answer given due to wordsmithing. This is a form of keeping the government transparent. A way that governments in the western world make their policies laws and regulations more opaque and confusing is through master wordsmithing, done by professional legislators and lawyers. The government makes laws and statutes so complex and lengthy that an individual would need to receive their JD and have countless hours to be able to comprehend and understand the laws, policies, regulations or statutes that are up for approval. This is a way to keep the public in the dark. It may seem easy enough to lug your way through the long words and endless piles of papers, but most people do not have the time, nor the vocabulary necessary to understand what is written in these documents.
When I first started my extensive research in early fall 2016, I frankly did not care that much about surveillance in the United States. I would say the common phrase I have nothing to hide, or if they do surveillance on me they are wasting time,or everything I do is boring. I know now that this subject needs to be explored by all people who in any way want freedom.Before I began my research I never really thought of government transparency as an issue. I always thought of America as a beacon of hope and light in this ever darkening world. This country stood for my freedom, that this country stood for what I believe in. I know all I can do is write and speak out against the tyranny that stands before us. I know now that the call to action needs to be here. That we need to
rally and educate the citizens of this “free” country to stand up for what is right. For the freedom that we were promised in 1787 (the year that the US Constitution was written). This is my call to action. We need to put politicians in power that would fight with us for a more transparent and more accountable government.
I never could have imagined the scope of the government’s control and surveillance of our daily lives, until I began my research into the topic. My research has been eye opening. This is a real problem that is not just happening in the United States. People from around the world should be outraged by the mass surveillance and lack of transparency. Some of this may seem a little outlandish to some people, but I think it is a little
outlandish that more people are not outraged by this. We need real change and we need it now. The only problem is, is that we may not have the chance to make these changes unless we act fast and vote the right people into office, who would act in a responsible way when it comes to the world’s largest surveillance operation.
Overall this country needs a change, real change, not only change on the surface, or change that seems like it helps. We need to change the way we conduct our surveillance operations. Change that will benefit not only the American public, but the citizens of this world. The government needs to become more transparent and held in accountability for the covert operations done regardless if they are done domestically or in a foreign nation. We need to force our government to be open and clear on what their intentions are and to whom they are spying on.
Ryan M. Parada
The Rutgers Honors College
Concentration in Political Science, Philosophy and Homeland Security