The internet is the most important invention of the twentieth century and it has dramatically transformed human life. This invention has greatly increased the speed and efficiency with which communication occurs. Its unrivalled benefits in information processing have made this technology a part of most aspects of modern-daily activities.
Boghosian (2013) notes that while the internet plays a major role in improving life in our society, some sinister applications of this invention undermine privacy and civil rights. Perhaps the most troubling applications of the internet in current times are the mass surveillance efforts by the US government. This paper will argue that government internet surveillance is a threat to the privacy and civil rights of US citizens and it must therefore be mitigated.
The Internet and Surveillance
Government surveillance has existed in various forms for centuries. Through this activity, the government has been able to obtain valuable public and secret information and act on it to aid governance. The internet age has dramatically increased the ability of government to engage in surveillance.
To begin with, the internet has become the most common medium of communication for many people. By monitoring this single communication network, the government has access to virtually all information that is communicated electronically including email habits, credit card, bank records, and phone records (Regan, 2014). The advancement in storage technology has contributed to the pervasive surveillance carried out by the US.
Today, the data that can be stored is nearly infinite due to the tremendous growth in storage capacity and the decline in storage prices. Intelligence agencies are therefore able to collect all available data since it is cheaper and easier than trying to determine what data should be stored and what should be ignored. At the same time, sophisticated computer algorithms make it possible for government agencies to analyze large amounts of data and derive meaning from it.
US Government Surveillance
Scherer (2013) states that while electronic intelligence in the US historically focused on foreign governments, the events of 9/11 led to an increased focus on American citizens. Starting from that year, the NSA turned inward and shifted its focus to include private individuals. This shift was prompted by the understanding that the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks had resided in the US and made their plans while living in the country. Since then, the government has engaged in widespread surveillance of its citizens in an attempt to prevent crime.
The internet has made it possible for the government to engage in mass surveillance. Through security apparatus such as the NSA, the American government can collect and analyze vast quantities of data about its citizens. These activities often take place without the consent or knowledge of the individual.
Revelations by Snowden showed that the government engaging in surveillance at a scale that a majority of society did not even think was possible (Scherer, 2013). Through US dedicates more than $52.6 billion each year to run a massive secret national security apparatus. This apparatus includes the NSA, which has over 30,000 employees and gathers and stores not only phone records in the US but also metadata on internet traffic.
To increase its surveillance abilities, the US government has engaged in programs aimed at influencing IT companies to provide the NSA with a back door to encrypted communications. Scherer (2013) documents that through such a program, the government denies private citizens of their right to create unbreakable encryption software.
Surveillance Efforts a Threat to Privacy and Civil Rights
Wide scale surveillance by the government has harmed the privacy rights of US citizens. Government internet surveillance efforts result in a violation of individual privacy as the government intercepts the personal information and communication from US citizens. For privacy to exist, an individual has to have control over himself and the information he shares with others.
Boghosian (2013) notes that attempts to safeguard the privacy of American have been compromised by the government’s demand for unrestricted access to information. Under the Patriot Act, the government has access to a wide array of personal information. Through the National Security Administration (NSA), the government has engaged in large-scale data collection on US citizens.
This data is then analyzed in an effort to identify suspects. However, this data can be used to obtain more information about the private lives of Americans thus violating individual privacy.
The right to free speech and association are affected by the existence of extensive internet surveillance programs. According to the freedom of speech right, an individual is entitled to communicate his personal opinion or ideas with others without the fear of repercussions. The freedom of association guarantees an individual the right to relate with persons or groups of his choosing without any external inhibitions.
Purkayastha and Bailey (2014) observe that mass surveillance undermines free speech as individuals may face retaliation action if they are critical of the government. The government may engage in steps to silence critics who are identified through the surveillance efforts. Private Citizens concerned that their communications may be under surveillance are likely to avoid making their opinions public out of fear of government reprisal. Internet surveillance will therefore have led to the violation of the civil rights of these US citizens.
Government surveillance violates the location privacy of an individual. Boghosian (2013) defines location privacy as the right of an American to move in public without being tracked on monitored. This right is violated by unrestricted surveillance by the government. By monitoring Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, the government can record the precise movement of an individual. His/her exact location at any time can be record and stored helping to create an elaborate profile on the individual’s movement patterns.
The Fourth Amendment, which guarantees Americans protection against unreasonable searchers and seizures is violated by the undiscriminating internet surveillance. Through this mass collection and scrutinizing of personal information, the government violates the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. Scherer (2013) confirms that unreasonable searches that take place with no justification characterize the internet surveillance carried out by the government. The government collects data from all citizens and then analyzes this information in the hope of finding patterns that will help identify criminals.
Justification for Surveillance
The US government has justified its aggressive surveillance activities as necessary efforts for the enhancement of national security. In a speech on the importance of surveillance, the US President Barack Obama asserts that these activities enable law enforcement officers to detect terrorists and prevent them from carrying out attacks against the US (Obama, 2014). Even ordinary US citizens recognize this positive role of internet monitoring.
While most Americans are opposed to government surveillance, there is a recognition that the government might need to engage in monitoring efforts in order to safeguard the homeland. Scherer (2013) notes that according to polls, a majority of Americans show continued willingness to give up some of their rights to privacy as part of efforts to combat terrorism.
Government surveillance of the internet helps to protect citizens from the dangers that an abuse of the internet can cause. The internet provides individual users with significant power due to the wide range of information contained on the network and the communication efficiency.
These attributes can be exploited for wrong purposes if the government does not police the network. Seidler (2013) confirms that the government might be forced to carry out secret activities for the benefit of its citizens. Through surveillance, the government can identify questionable activities by citizens and engage in further investigation. Such efforts might lead to the discovery and stopping of criminal elements before they carry out crime.
Discussion and Conclusion
Under the Obama Administration, the US has continued and even expanded the electronic surveillance implemented by the Bush administration. The justification for this is that the surveillance regime is integral to protecting the US against Foreign and Homegrown terrorists. Even so, Obama (2014) admits that the prevalent internet monitoring creates a potential for abuse. Action therefore needs to be taken against government surveillance on its citizens.
According to the renowned American whistleblower, Edward Snowden, the important players in this issue include “the public, the technologist community, the U.S. courts, Congress and the Executive Branch” (Scherer, 2013, p.81). These bodies need to deliberate on the future of the country if government surveillance is allowed to go on uninhibited.
As it currently stands, Internet surveillance has given the government intrusive police power that can be used against innocent civilians. The liberties of Americans have been constricted by the deployment of the surveillance infrastructure. Action needs to be taken to address these issues and restore the privacy and civil liberties guaranteed to American citizens by the US Constitution.
Boghosian, H. (2013). The Business of Surveillance. Human Rights, 39(3), 2-23.
Obama, B. (2014). Remarks by the President on Review of Signals Intelligence.
Purkayastha, P., & Bailey, R. (2014). U.S. Control of the Internet Problems Facing the Movement to International Governance. Independent Socialist Magazine, 66(3), 103-127.
Regan, L. (2014). Electronic Communications Surveillance. Independent Socialist Magazine, 66(3), 32-42.
Scherer, M. (2013). Number Two Edward Snowden The Dark Prophet. Time, 182(26), 78-89.
Seidler, N. (2013). A perspective on principles for Internet surveillance.