A Philosopher's Blog

Prism & Privacy

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 24, 2013

The revelations about the once secret Prism program of the National Security Agency

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

have revitalized the old debates about liberty versus security and the individual versus the state. Obviously enough, there are many legal and ethical issues here.

On the face of it, Prism was quite legal-at least in the United States. That is, the program went through all of the legally established procedures for such a program. It remains, however, to see if it is actually constitutional. While questions of legality and constitutionality are interesting, I’ll focus on some of the ethical concerns.

Not surprisingly, the main moral defense of Prism and other programs is based in utilitarianism: any (alleged) wrongs done by intruding into privacy are morally offset by the greater good done by increasing security. The Obama administration has made vague claims that the program has prevented attacks and there is the claim that it will prevent attacks in the future. However, as I have noted before, these claims are coming from the administration who hid the program behind lies. These past deceits and the fact that they are prejudiced clearly makes the administration a dubious source for claims about the efficacy of Prism. However, I do agree that Prism can potentially be morally justified on these grounds and this would be contingent on it doing more good than harm.

The alleged good of such a program can be assessed in terms of the attacks prevented and estimates of the damage that would have been done if such attacks had succeeded. Naturally, the importance of Prism is such prevention must also be considered. After all, if other means  would have prevented the attack anyways, then Prism’s credit should be adjusted appropriately.

There are various ways to argue that Prism and similar programs are wrong. One option is to use the same method as can be used to defend it, namely an assessment of the consequences of the program. In order to show that the program is wrong, what would be needed would be  reasons to believe that the harms inflicted by the program exceed the benefits. As noted above, the alleged benefits involve increased security. However, the only evidence I have for the effectiveness of the program is the claims made by the people who are endeavoring to defend it. In regards to the harms done, there seem to be a variety of actual and potential harms.

I know that my view that programs like Prism are wrong stems from purely emotional causes. First, I was quite the WWII buff as a kid and I was taught that only organizations like the Gestapo engaged in such broad spying on the citizens of the state. Second, I grew up during the Cold War and well remember being told that the communist countries were bad because they spied on the citizens, something we would not do in the West. That sort of thing was for the secret police of dictatorships, not democratic states. These are, of course, naive views and based in emotions rather than logic. However, there seems to something to the notion that a difference between good guys and bad guys does involve the willingness to gather intelligence about citizens.

One harm is that the secrecy and nature of the program seems to have increased the distrust of the citizens for the United States government. It has also damaged the United State’s image around the world. Of course, this sort of damage can be considered relatively minor and it can be claimed that the fickle focus of public attention will shift, especially if some celebrity scandal or  drama catches the public eye.

Another category of harms arises from the invasion of privacy itself. These harms could include psychological harms regarding the violation of privacy and fears about what the state might do with the information. As was evident in the debate over gun control, people can be quite agitated and dismayed by even the rumor that the state might track firearm purchases. While the Prism program does not (directly) track guns (as far as we know) it certainly gathers a vast amount of information about people.

A third category of harms involves the potential harms. One obvious worry is that even if the information is being used for only legitimate purposes now, there is the possibility that the information could be misused in the future. Or is being misused now. Some people were quite upset by the IRS asking certain groups for more information and with the Department of Justice gathering information about reporters. Obviously, whatever harms occurred in those cases would be vastly multiplied. After all, Prism is getting into everyone’s business.

There are, of course, other harms that can be considered.

A second option is to go with a rights based approach to the matter. If there is a moral right to privacy, then Prism would certainly seem to intrude on that right (if not violate it). Naturally, rights can be limited on moral grounds. The usual example is, of course, that the freedom of speech does not allow anyone to say anything at anytime-the right is limited by concerns about harms. Likewise for the right to privacy (if there is such a right).

The obvious challenge with an appeal to a right is to argue that there is such a right. In the case of legal rights, this is easy enough-one can just point to the relevant laws that specify the legal rights. When it comes to moral rights, it is a bit trickier.  Classic rights theorists like John Locke argued for rights to life, liberty and property. A case can be made that certain privacy rights fall under the right to property. For example, it can be contended that my communications belong to me and if the state intercepts and stores them, the state is stealing my property. A case can also be made to put certain privacy rights under the right to liberty. For example, I should have the liberty of communication without the state restricting it by creating the fear that my communications can be intercepted and copied without the justification of legitimate suspicion of wrongdoing on my part.

In any case, it would be interesting to see a full development of privacy rights or at least a clear presentation of what is lost when privacy is intruded upon by programs like prism.

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 25, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    It’s not Prism that’s the problem, the problem has been Stellar Wind since September 2001.

    NSA programer William Binney, who created Stellar Wind, designed it, for use in foreign intelligence gathering, with the ability to filter out all data not directly and legally related to ongoing terrorist investigations, which would have protected all US citizens from having their data both gathered in and, later, data mined. The government decided to forego these protections, and the law, and gather in everyone’s data anyway.

    Aug 23, 2012 – The filmmaker Laura Poitras profiles William Binney, a 32-year veteran of the National Security Agency who helped design a top-secret program he says is broadly collecting Americans’ personal data.

    VIDEO – Op-Doc: The Program (Stellar Wind) – http://youtu.be/6PIPHNlAxY4

    June 10, 2013 – Inside the NSA’s Domestic Surveillance Apparatus: Whistleblower William Binney Speaks Out

    William Binney describes how his former agency has built a massive system to track, monitor and record phone and Internet communications of U.S. citizens and people around the world. Binney resigned from the National Security Agency in 2001 to protest growing domestic surveillance. He was a senior NSA crypto-mathematician largely responsible for automating the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping network. He was one of the two co-founders of the agency’s Signals Intelligence Automation Research Center. He resigned after the Sept. 11 attacks. In 2012 he gave his first ever television interview to Democracy Now.

    Inside the NSA’s Domestic Surveillance Apparatus: Whistleblower William Binney Speaks Out – http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2013/6/10/inside_the_nsas_domestic_surveillance_apparatus_whistleblower_william_binney_speaks_out

    A leaked court order has revealed the Obama administration is conducting a massive domestic surveillance program by collecting telephone records of millions of Verizon customers. The Guardian newspaper published a classified order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court directing Verizon’s Business Network Services to give the National Security Agency electronic data, including all calling records on an “ongoing, daily basis.” The order covers each phone number dialed by all customers, along with location and routing data, and with the duration and frequency of the calls, but not the contents of the communications.

    We discuss the news with three guests: Shayana Kadidal, senior managing attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, and two former National Security Agency employees turned whistleblowers: Thomas Drake and William Binney.

    VIDEO – NSA Whistleblowers: “All U.S. Citizens” Targeted by Surveillance Program, Not Just Verizon Customers – http://www.democracynow.org/2013/6/6/nsa_whistleblowers_all_us_citizens_targeted

    William Binney describes how his former agency has built a massive system to track, monitor and record phone and Internet communications of U.S. citizens and people around the world. Binney resigned from the National Security Agency in 2001 to protest growing domestic surveillance. He was a senior NSA crypto-mathematician largely responsible for automating the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping network. He was one of the two co-founders of the agency’s Signals Intelligence Automation Research Center. He resigned after the Sept. 11 attacks. In 2012 he gave his first ever television interview to Democracy Now!

    Inside the #NSA #DomesticSurveillance Apparatus #StellarWind: Whistleblower #WilliamBinney Speaks Out http://bit.ly/106oHhl @democracynow

    Thomas Drake, a former Senior Executive at NSA who was charged under the espionage act after he blew the whistle on waste and fraud and illegal activity at the intelligence agency, spoke at a March 15, 2013 National Press Club luncheon. Drake’s event was part of the club’s celebration of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to underscore the importance of open government and freedom of information.

    VIDEO – NSA Whistleblower Thomas Drake speaks at National Press Club – March 15, 2013 – http://youtu.be/3Wp2BGLMqDM

    “Facebook was setup by the C.I.A. Try telling that to most people and they laugh at it. People seem to think its a coincidence that Facebook seems to be so intrusive over and over again. Privacy policies that would make anyone scratch their head. I’m not going to beat around the bush with this blog post. Facebook was setup by the C.I.A. as a data mining project to collect as much information on as many people as they could. Not only that but it also has very strong ties to D.A.R.P.A. The purpose of this data mining project that became Facebook was to find out a boat load of things on people. Where they are going. What they are doing. What airline are they using Who do they associate with What type of books or movies have you been reading. How you feel about things politically. The list goes on and on. Before I elaborate let me say that my prior statement about Facebook being setup by the C.I.A. isn’t a theory or a hunch. If you simply follow the money its quite easy to see what is going on. Before we follow this money trail, just think about this.”

    01/19/2012 – Facebook And It’s Connections To The C.I.A. And D.A.R.P.A. by Brian S Staveley – http://www.therealnewsonline.com/2/post/2012/01/facebook-and-its-connections-to-the-cia-and-darpa.html

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 25, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    Part 1 – Exclusive: National Security Agency Whistleblower William Binney on Growing State Surveillance – http://www.democracynow.org/2012/4/20/exclusive_national_security_agency_whistleblower_william

    Part 2 – Detained in the U.S.: Filmmaker Laura Poitras Held, Questioned Some 40 Times at U.S. Airports – http://www.democracynow.org/2012/4/20/detained_in_the_us_filmmaker_laura

    Part 3 – “We Don’t Live in a Free Country”: Jacob Appelbaum on Being Target of Widespread Gov’t Surveillance – http://www.democracynow.org/2012/4/20/we_do_not_live_in_a

    Part 4 – Whistleblower: The NSA Is Lying–U.S. Government Has Copies of Most of Your Emails – http://www.democracynow.org/2012/4/20/whistleblower_the_nsa_is_lying_us

    Part 5 – More Secrets on Growing State Surveillance: Exclusive with NSA Whistleblower, Targeted Hacker – http://www.democracynow.org/2012/4/23/more_secrets_on_growing_state_surveillance


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