I read an article today, which talks about an explanatory document that the National Security Agency (NSA) released in response to the heat they’ve been getting over their data-gathering activities. The article was mostly informational, simply stating that the document exists, and explaining the gist of what it says. The document itself is very interesting, detailing as far as is safe for national security the data gathering methods available to and the limitations placed on the NSA. The end of the article points out that this document come out on the same day as more leaked information from Edward Snowden, information which runs directly contrary to assurances present in the NSA document. In this blog post I want to talk about this contradiction, and what I think it means for the ethics of the NSA’s activities.
The NSA document was released at President Obama’s behest, with the purpose of explaining concisely what it is that the NSA does, as well as what it does not and cannot do. In essence what it says is that the NSA’s sole duty is the collection of information, with the intent of passing that intel on to the FBI, so that it can be used to stop terrorist threats. Their activities are all sanctioned by United States law of long standing. They have the authorities to track and monitor non-US citizens without much restriction, so long as there is sufficient evidence their targets are involved in questionable activities. The collection of information outside of the US by necessity of often requires “hacking” (my word, not theirs), just because terrorists are not going to let just anybody know their plans. Occasionally their search of information will also require inquiring into the private affairs of American citizens, or delving into American information networks, simply because American citizens are sometimes terrorists as well, and much of the Internet’s traffic goes through America. When dealing with situations such as this the NSA has clearly defines measures which must be followed to keep the information gathered from being misused. These measures include the necessity of court orders and levels of cross-examination, with outside individuals making sure everything is above board with the law. Also all NSA employees are required to report if they see anything being done that should not be done. The document also detail about the very little amount of information they realistically deal with, and the great good that has come from their efforts.
There is more in the document about safety measures, but I think this should suffice to show that from the NSA’s standpoint what they’re doing is justified. I was personally convinced from reading the report that what they are doing is good, and should be allowed. But there is another side to this story, the beginning of which is found in this article. According to information provided by Edward Snowden, who was an employee of the NSA until moral qualms led him to flee to Russia, the NSA has built “backdoors” into the system which allow them to bypass much of the restrictions on their data gathering, including the need for a warrant. This obviously flies in the face of the NSA’s document, which specifically says that they need a warrant to gather information about US citizens. According to this article, the NSA can both read American e-mails and listen into American phone-calls whenever it feels like it. This same point is articulated in this article.
What to do with these two very contrary bit of evidence? One says that everything is okay, and legal, and ethical, while the other say the exact opposite. A useful thing to remember is that Proverbs 18:17 says that “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” (ESV). This means that you have to remember that no one has the full story, and you have to accept all information in the light of all other information. With this in mind I would remember that the NSA document was released with the express and stated purpose of defending the NSA’s actions. As such, it may not be totally accurate. Conversely, both articles that point out the NSA’s “nefararious undertakings” are by CNN, which is a news site, and the news generally favors scandal, try as they might to remain unbiased. As such neither can be trusted completely. Therefore, I choose to use a slightly different approach. Rather than using the NSA document and CNN articles to think about what IS, I use them as examples of what COULD be. The NSA document exemplifies the ideal of a data gathering agency. It gets only the information it needs, and anything superfluous is discarded. There are safe guards in place to prevent abuse, and self-reporting keeps things in check. The CNN articles, on the other hand, present a scenario of what the NSA could be without its safeguards. It can listen to and look at anything it wants without a second thought, and use that information however it desires. One scenario is very good, the other very bad, and I daresay the NSA falls somewhere in the middle.
In the end it’s not really about what information the NSA has. They can gather any information they want, for all I care. The real question is why they need the information, and what they are using that information for. I would rather err on the side of caution, and allow the NSA to prevent terrorist attacks, than to limit them and as a result let terrorists fulfill their plots. But, this only applies if the NSA is really using the information to fight terrorism and domestic threats. As soon as they start to use it outside of their assigned duties, such as to gather intel on a person that the government doesn’t like, who isn’t doing anything wrong, then they need to be limited, not in data gathering, but in data use. The NSA document shows that the NSA has high ideals, but the CNN articles show that it might be on the way down the road of corruption, and should be viewed with a measure of caution.
There are conflicting accounts as to what exactly the NSA does and does not do to gather information. It could either be a great organization which uses it’s resources to catch terrorists, or a malevolent entity spying on its country’s own people. I personally do not care how much data they gather, or how, even if by spying, so long as they as using it to actually fight terrorism, and not misusing the great power that they have been given. As such I think that there needs to be greater transparency regarding the NSA’s use of their data. I think the document they released is a good start in that direction, but it should not be the end. more information should be disclosed, if only to put the mind of the American people at ease.