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NSA Surveillance on Americans Privacy and Information is Ethically Wrong

NSASurveillance on Americans Privacy and Information is Ethically Wrong

Thequestion as to whether NSA has the right to violate people’s rightto privacy while conducting its surveillance operations to counterterrorism has ensued into a heated debate since 2013(AmericanLibrary Association 244). In mid-2013, Edward Snowden, a governmentcontractor publicized top-secret materials to the news media,exposing the public to the extent to which NSA had violated theirrights to privacy in the name of fighting terrorism. Snowdenrevelations left many Americans wondering whether it was safe to usethe internet or mobile phones without the government violating theirprivacy. It is irrefutable that NSA surveillance is a contentiousissue because it helps uphold the security and peace of the Americansto the detriment of their confidentiality. Since the 9/11 terroristattack, the American government has developed diverse mechanisms ofprotecting the country from such similar attacks in the future thus,the extensive development of NSA surveillance. Burtonpoints out that national security is important and NSA surveillanceactivities to enhance it should continue even if it means intrudinginto people’s personal lives (392). However, NSA surveillanceviolates the Fourth Amendment and hence puts at stake people’sprivacy rights without a valid reason. Despite the broad evidencethat shows that NSA surveillance violates people’s rights toprivacy, some people perceive the activities as necessary because thegovernment cannot compromise national security at the expense ofindividual privacy issues. This school of thought argues that peopleshould not worry that NSA is monitoring their communications throughthe internet and mobile phones if they are not involved in anythingillegal. The report argues that although NSA surveillance program islowly intrusive, it represents a violation of individuals’ privacyrights hence, the need for the program to be analyzed anddesigned in a more efficient manner.


Ina digital era where Smartphone have taken the lead in communicationgadgets, the internet is no longer restricted to one’s desktop.Therefore, people have the freedom to stay online from anywhere andanytime they feel like, a trend that is exposing them to higher risksof being monitored and tracked (Burton 395). It is important to pointout that the public has been aware that the government, under the“FISA Amendments Act of 2008” gained the authority to monitorinternational communications, especially those by foreigners(Burton397). However, FAA has given the government the power to not onlyintercept communication by foreigners but also to collect, retain anddisseminate that information to other government departments andoverseas governments. If the trend is not checked, Americans willsoon be part of the wider NSA surveillance program thus, thegovernment should draw a balance between national security andpeople’s rights. If the program does not uphold the liberalcommunitarian principles of people, it cannot be allowed to exploreor snoop on individuals’ privacy without their knowledge.

Barocasand Nissenbaumposit that there is adequate evidence that NSA is intercepting andinterpreting without a court warrant enormous amounts of American’semail and text communications into and out of the country (31).People believe that NSA surveillance activities have intensified overtime with the continued advancement in communication technologies.The Fourth Amendment prohibits the government or any entity inintruding into Americans’ privacy (Etzioni 103. The FourthAmendment established a self-governing judiciary between thegovernment and its citizens that requires the government to acquirean authorization from a federal justice to investigate the suspectedindividual. However, it seems the NSA surveillance program hasignored all these legal procedures in the name of counteringterrorist activities. The question is whether NSA surveillance hascontributed anything, if at all in fighting terrorism in America. Nomatter the reason for surveillance, the issue is that NSA is takingadvantage of its powerful position to violate Americans’constitution rights to privacy.

Further,Barocas and Nissenbaumargue that the standards used by NSA to carry out their surveillanceactivities are lenient and hence there is a high probability thatthey make several errors in identifying possible suspects (32). Thisimplies that the NSA is likely to gather information from puredomestic communications, intruding into people’s personal lives.From the various researches that have been carried out, the impact ofNSA surveillance has a profound effect on Americans and their onlinecommunication behavior (Barocas and Nissenbaum 32). Sweeping up andinvestigating Americans’ communication without their knowledgeviolates almost all the basic privacy principles. In addition, itfreezes communication and association, which are essential in ademocratic and pluralistic society such as America.

Inthe today’s society, the data gathered by the various NSAsurveillance programs poses a similar threat as the one associatedwith the collection of membership lists (Barocas and Nissenbaum32). Most of the information that NSA collects is metadata,a term that refers to the information surrounding a person’spersonal communication. The danger with metadata is that it allowsNSA to map all networks and online activities, which has created fearamong the citizens. Nowadays, a person has to think twice beforecommunicating with an individual or group, especially via the socialmedia. Since Snowden’s revelation of the NSA surveillanceactivities, the way people interact on the internet is certainlychanging. Unfortunately, fear and withdrawal from communication arenot the only reactions to NSA warrantless surveillance but currentresearch indicates that American’s habits are changing as well. APew survey carried in 2013 by Rainieet al. revealed that 86% of the people who use the internet hadalready started taking precautions to hide or completely remove theirdigital trails (2). The figure below shows how people have changedtheir uses of technology due to NSA surveillance.

Fig.1. Percentage of people who have taken precautions

Suchprecautions included clearing cookies and encrypting their emails toname but a few. The study also revealed that a further 55% have takensteps to avoid being monitored by specific people, institutions orthe government (Rainie et al. 5).

Fig.2. Who users avoid

Inmany other countries, there are clear rules that govern people’sprivacy especially in online communication (Geller 21). For instance,the European Data Protection allows data to be transmitted inopen-access form to only 10 nations, not members of the EuropeanUnion (Geller 21). However, it seems the United States has its ownprivacy laws and breaks them to its benefit (Barocas and Nissenbaum33). In order to argue effectively for and get back the right tocommunicate and associate freely without surveillance, it isimportant that the America adhere to the national and internationallaws governing individual privacy rights. There are many differencesbetween digital and analog communication and it is the right time thegovernment acknowledges and respects people’s rights to privacy.

TheNSA widespread surveillance of American’s private communication isnot only affecting business people but also other professionals suchas lawyers, journalists and others who often speak with peopleoverseas. It has also affected the behavior of normal citizens, whoare now terrified of using a contentious website or discuss issuesvia email. Over time, the mass communication, and exchange of ideas,which is a pillar of a democratic society, will diminish andnegatively affect people’s trust in their government. Etzionipoints out that the harmful effects of surveillance on expression andassociation are indisputably linked (122). The right to organize isessential not only for political reasons but also most importantly,for sharing and advancement of ideas. Historically, the FirstAmendment covers the two rights though they have sometimes beentreated separately. NSA surveillance is increasing facing resistancebecause it is limiting people in sharing ideas that are essential fornot only individual growth but also most importantly, the developmentof the society.


Despitethe fact that it is clear that NSA surveillance programs violate themost basic principles of human privacy, some people support the idea.The supporting side argues that national security is of greatimportance and people should be ready to sacrifice their privacyrights to live in a secure nation free of terrorism. NSA surveillanceactivities have been defended by many especially the government,which argues that the close watch, has significantly enhancednational security hence offering greater public protection especiallyfor the minority and immigrant groups in the U.S. (Burton 399). Thesupporters of NSA surveillance seem to shift from the position thatprivacy is an intrinsic U.S. constitutional right and instead proposethat Americans should worry more about their security issue thanprivacy as a way to show patriotism.

Moreover,the supporters argue that NSA surveillance has enhanced pluralism andinclusiveness in the American society through improved nationalsecurity. However, it is important to point out that government’sarguments about the responsibility of NSA surveillance in avertingterrorism are exaggerated and untrue. An in-depth analysis conductedby Bergenet al. of 225 people recruited or motivated by al-Qaeda’sphilosophy and indicted in the United States in connection with 9/11attacks confirmed that NSA surveillance is an ineffective mechanismof fighting terrorism (4). According to the study, the traditionaltechniques such as the use of local informers from a group of peoplesuspected of terrorist activities and tips from the local communitieswere more effective and less damaging than NSA surveillance programs.Although a specific magnitude of NSA surveillance is required foreven the most familiar communications, the intrusion should beminimal and only necessary in safeguarding the peace and security ofAmericans. Without proper limitations, the program will relapse intoan unlawful invasion of discretion and subjective abuse of power. Theprogram should have extra-administration and congressional safeguardsto ensure it does not intrude on people’s privacy.


Fromthe paper, it is evident that the National Security Agency hasgreatly offended many Americans by sweeping and interpreting theircommunication patterns and data. The NSA surveillance program is atotal violation of people’s constitutional rights to privacyguaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. NSA does not follow the legalprocedures required in cross-examining people’s emails and networksand hence it seems that it is misusing its powers and mandate. Thesupporters of the NSA surveillance program argue that security isparamount to privacy and hence the program is ethical since it aimsto enhance the national security, an essential pillar in apluralistic and inclusive society. However, considering the program’simpact on expression and association, something should be doneurgently to analyze the efficiency and necessity of NSA surveillanceactivities. With such a division among the American citizensregarding this issue, it is important to develop a mechanism whereNSA can continue enhancing national security without violatingpeople’s rights to privacy. In conclusion, it is important that NSAsurveillance programs be evaluated and designed in a manner that theywill be able to protect the nation from avoidable terrorist threatsand at the same time, observe individual privacy rights.


AmericanLibrary Association. “NSA Surveillance Controversy Grows.”Journalof Intellectual Freedom &amp Privacy,62.6 (2015): 244-249.

Barocas,Solon, and Helen Nissenbaum. “Big Data`s End Run Around ProceduralPrivacy Protections.”&nbspCommunicationsof the ACM&nbsp57.11(2014): 31-33.

Bergen,Peter, David Sterman, Emily Schneider, and Bailey Cahall. “Do NSA`sBulk Surveillance Programs Stop Terrorists?”&nbspNewAmerican Foundation&nbsp13(2014): 1-32.

Burton,Adam. “Fixing FISA for Long War: Regulating WarrantlessSurveillance in the Age of Terrorism.”&nbspUniversityof New Hampshire Law Review&nbsp4.2(2016): 381-404.

Etzioni,Amitai. “NSA: National Security vs. IndividualRights.”&nbspIntelligenceand National Security&nbsp30.1(2015): 100-136.

Geller,Tom. &quotIn Privacy Law, It`s The US Vs. The World.&quot&nbspCommunicationsof the ACM&nbsp59.2(2016): 21-23.

Rainie,Lee, Sara Kiesler, Ruogu Kang, Mary Madden, Maeve Duggan, StephanieBrown, and Laura Dabbish. “Anonymity, Privacy, and SecurityOnline.”&nbspPewResearch Center&nbsp5(2013): 1-34.