PoliticsSocial Issues

Hello Privacy, Goodbye NSA

In her 2001 book The Right Course vs. What’s Left, Ayn Rand writes, “You can ignore reality but you can’t ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”

NSA Headquarters. Fort Meade, Maryland, U.S. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images.

NSA Headquarters. Fort Meade, Maryland, U.S. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images.

Ignoring the reality of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) sweeping surveillance of American citizens, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently rejected the American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit against the NSA’s expansive upstream surveillance program. Claiming “state secrets” privilege, the Court exempted the NSA from judicial review. Long after whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the NSA’s flagrant violations of the Fourth Amendment, the government continues to conduct unreasonable searches of American citizens’ personal information. The NSA justifies their upstream surveillance and monitoring of all Americans’ international communications with clauses from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which declares terrorist apprehension precedes privacy. This exploitation is destructive to American ideals.

In 2020, The New Yorker found that the world is seeing its “fourteenth straight year of deteriorating freedom.” One year later, Freedom House, a nonprofit established by Eleanor Roosevelt that researches democracy, political freedom, and human rights, established that the United States had a freedom score of 94/100 in 2009, which has now fallen to 83/100. According to Human Rights Watch, a significant reason for this decrease is due to American surveillance agencies such as the NSA, which erode global digital privacy, damaging freedoms of expression, press, and privacy. In an article about digital authoritarianism, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs explained that the Internet is now a tool with which despotic governments squash human rights. Unnervingly, Freedom House reports that more than 2.7 billion people now live in countries where individuals have been arrested for their online activities.

Americans protest against NSA government surveillance. Reuters.

Americans protest against NSA government surveillance. Reuters.

Domestically, Al Jazeera reports that the NSA has collected the email, Internet call, and chat records of over 151 million Americans, violating their rights to privacy and expression. Internationally, the NSA not only prevents reform, but it also provides justification for authoritarian regimes to crack down on their citizens digitally. The Open Technology Institute explains that the NSA has made it more difficult for local civil society groups worldwide to advocate for Internet freedom within their own governments. For example, the NSA’s activities have led to an increased distrust in Western values such as equality, liberty, and democracy, damaging the efforts of local advocacy groups to curb government surveillance in countries like Pakistan. However, Reuters corroborates that authoritarian nations such as China attempt to increase legitimacy by framing their surveillance models after that of the NSA under the pretense of preventing terrorism. Thus, by ending NSA surveillance, the growth of authoritarianism around the world will be inhibited. A Washington Post opinion piece found that less authoritarian regimes had improved living conditions, healthcare, life expectancies, and literacy rates. MIT even attests these conditions can produce a 20% increase in GDP growth. 

Similarly, in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the dictatorial Unification Board’s surveillance policies such as those that placed government officials within all private businesses led to a crackdown on business tycoons and restrictions on their ability to produce. In fact, nations worldwide also set up Unification Board-esque authoritative bodies to oversee their constituents.

The National Security Agency (NSA) logo is shown on a computer screen inside the Threat Operations Center at the NSA in Fort Meade, Maryland, January 25, 2006. REUTERS/Jason Reed

NSA threat operations center. Reuters.

The Policy Initiatives Institute warns that “Because [of] NSA backdoors, organizations [are] open to hacking by [foreign adversaries]. This form of mass surveillance is a key reason why 43% of firms report being hacked.” According to Wired, the NSA relies on exploiting digital vulnerabilities, which lead to unexpected consequences, to conduct surveillance. In fact, data breaches grew by 273% in 2020 compared to 2019. The Belfer Center contends that the rediscovery of vulnerabilities kept secret by the U.S. government is the source of one-third of all zero-day exploits, which are software vulnerabilities unknown for those targeted. Velocity Group, a management consulting firm, corroborates that in 2017, hackers posted an NSA eavesdropping program called “EternalBlue” online. Two years later, hackers weaponized EternalBlue and held Baltimore City computers hostage for a month. The NSA could disclose and patch up these vulnerabilities by ending surveillance, thus disarming our adversaries. As a result, the RAND Corporation explains that there would be a focus on constantly fixing a vulnerability upon discovery.

Without ending NSA surveillance and disclosing critical vulnerabilities, Velocity Group asserts that what happened in Baltimore could happen to international payment systems, and create a financial panic. Additionally, the increasing volume of cyber attacks on small businesses could trigger a bottom-up recession, which would likely affect the global economy due to America’s vast trade linkages. This recession could potentially push 900 million into poverty

Disclosing critical vulnerabilities would also prevent intellectual property theft. Since the NSA has a centralized database with the data of all Americans, individual data is frequently stolen. The IP Commission states that intellectual property theft has taken 2.1 million jobs already, a figure that will only multiply as attacks become more severe. Reason maintains that these backdoors have led to 40 million hacks in 2014, imposing millions in costs for businesses. Additionally, The IP Commission furthers that Chinese intellectual property theft enabled by NSA backdoors and undisclosed zero-day vulnerabilities have led to the US losing $600 billion annually. Ending surveillance would close NSA backdoors, making businesses less vulnerable to attacks.

Considering the arbitrary pretenses and extreme impacts of the NSA’s surveillance, Americans cannot afford to continue ignoring their Orwellian reality without suffering the consequences.