Until a few years ago, concerns over government surveillance were generally limited to conspiracy theories, technology organizations, and limited-government libertarians (these groups sometimes overlapping). It wasn’t a major mainstream concern. The revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden changed everything.
It wasn’t just the paranoid delusions of conspiracy theorists anymore. It wasn’t just excessive caution by concerned libertarians, and it wasn’t just technology organizations arguing extreme hypotheticals.
It was fact.
After Snowden’s numerous revelations dropped, there was a widespread push for reform. Some people were shocked by the revelations, others were largely unsurprised. If there is one thing that the revelations accomplished, it was that the intelligence community doesn’t play by the rules.
It all may be for good intentions. Intelligence agents and their bosses may do the things they do with the goal of protecting the United States from foreign enemies. The problem here is that there are still legal safeguards in place to protect American citizens from having their privacy invaded. We have a Constitution structuring our government with a Bill of Rights designed to protect the citizens. The founding documents were not written as optional guidelines, after all.
As Snowden revealed, the Bill of Rights is not being respected. Thus, these surveillance programs that invade American citizens’ privacy are illegal! But nevertheless, these programs were installed and continue to this very day.
Some say this is all necessary for our safety, and we must be willing to concede a degree of privacy for the purpose of security. Others say the contrary. This is the debate that is about to come alive again as Congress faces the expiration of FISA Section 702, which grants sweeping surveillance powers to the federal government.
Privacy advocates want more reforms and additional protections. Defense hawks want to protect the intelligence community. But in the end, does the debate even matter?
Prior to his revelations, Snowden attempted to resolve his concerns through the proper channels. Concerned that civil liberties were at risk, he passed along his concerns to his superiors. As documentation has shown, these concerns were largely ignored. This disagreement about secretive programs would have never seen the light of day if Snowden didn’t go rogue.
Are we really naive enough to believe that public debate will stop the intelligence community?
Again, this is not to necessarily argue malicious intent by the intelligence community who may be acting in good faith to protect the nation. But if the Dec. 31st deadline comes and goes without reauthorization, what happens? Will the intelligence community just pack it up, stop doing what they’ve done in relation to Section 702, and just go home?
As Edward Snowden showed us, what happens behind the scenes of the intelligence community occurs on a separate track from real world politics. While we debate the Fourth Amendment’s privacy protections, these constitutional safeguards have already been violated. So what does the debate matter? As we debate the philosophical issue surrounding mass surveillance and the political reality of the situation, the activity in question continues unabated. So what does the debate matter? The violation of our rights persists regardless of our opinions.
Congress will be taking up a series of legislative matters in the next month that are important for different reasons. This one may be the most important of all, but sadly the most trivial as well.