Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Privacy Vs. Protection: Is it time to be afraid of the NSA?

By Alexander ChakrinPublished October 31, 2013

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Can a government's unrestricted right to protect its citizens become a burden on society? The 4th Amendment to the Constitution guarantees "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures". However, Congress and the executive branch have strayed from the language of the Constitution and engaged in illegal wiretapping of Americans abroad.
By Alexander Chakrin, Published 10/31/13


Can a government's unrestricted right to protect its citizens become a burden on society? The 4th Amendment to the Constitution guarantees "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures". However, Congress and the executive branch have strayed from the language of the Constitution and engaged in illegal wiretapping of Americans abroad. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) was created to provide congressional oversight of wiretaps; this act, originally intended to limit the powers of the executive branch has recently been weakened by Congressional intervention. In 2008, Congress approved the FISA Amendments Act that allowed the government to continue to conduct warrantless wiretappings. This act allows telecommunication companies freedom from any possible criminal charges for cooperating with the NSA to provide information and phone records. The NSA has used this to request information from various companies such as Yahoo, Microsoft and others through programs known as Prism and Megadata. 

The NSA has overextended its authority and role as a legitimate organization and needs to be checked. It seems that Congress will not act; the courts need to step in and change the law. Earlier in 2013, the Supreme Court punted a lawsuit from the ACLU on the ground that the plaintiff did not have standing to sue because they did not know if they were wiretapped, since all of the information was classified. This means the government could continue to illegally wiretap foreigners and US citizens abroad, as there was no way an individual could get standing to sue if all of the information about the program continued to be classified.

The systems that were created for the protection of our liberties have become watered down by Presidential and Congressional action in the name of protection. However, the only protection Americans have received have been unnecessary and the amount of information gathered about private individuals has been dramatic. According to the Washington Post, the NSA even accessed Yahoo and Google data centers to gain personal information. This is not to say that protection must be ignored in the face of privacy, however the government's program is not narrowly tailored to accomplish its goal of protecting its citizens. While there may be isolated cases where the techniques have contributed to stalling terrorist attacks there are even fewer cases where normal police work would not have been sufficient. There is an inherent problem with the intrusiveness of a large collection of government data from every phone call or internet search made in the United States being accessible from the NSA. American citizens should not throw away their liberties so casually.

In this debate between protection and privacy, the tide has recently shifted. Recently, the Department of Justice has allowed an individual know that the Prism program played a role in the outcome of their case, allowing them to bring a lawsuit to the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court decides not only to take the case, but also to enforce the 4th Amendment, ruling that the NSA must obtain a warrant before wiretapping, Americans can once again feel comfortable talking on their cell phones without fear of an NSA agent on the other end of the line. However, if the Supreme Court decides not to act the battle is far from over. Congress passed the act, and as such, Congress can repeal it if enough political pressure is applied on Congressman to repeal the 2008 amendments. If the NSA is an issue in the 2014 elections, there  just may be a chance for limits and openness for an organization as secretive and powerful as the modern day NSA.