Leaked information about the pervasive surveillance operations of the U.S. National Security Agency has reignited the debate about the balance between civil liberties and national security. Further, privacy activists say the risk exists that the public will decide to accept even more surveillance than before.
The leaks from confessed whistleblower Edward Snowden provide a unique opportunity for civil liberties advocates to push to scale-back the government’s surveillance activities. But advocates also agree that they have a limited window in which to harness public support behind their cause.
“Whenever there’s a controversy like this, there’s always an initial outcry, and then two things happen: Either there’s a push for some change or people become acclimated to sort of the new situation,” said Paul Thacker, an ethics fellow at Harvard University. Whichever way the public goes, “we’re going to figure that out in the next few months.”
Thacker says that Americans have a habit of simply acclimating to new privacy intrusions, citing early outrage over traffic enforcement cameras in the 1980s. “People were so upset about that: ‘How can they be doing that?’ Now no one cares about traffic cameras anymore,” Thacker said.
Privacy advocates are moving swiftly in the wake of the leaks, hoping Congress will be forced to act. “We’re ramping up our campaigns, we’ve already started asking people to contact Congress,” said David Maass, a spokesman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which does legal and policy work around privacy issues as well as public campaigns. The group is calling for Congress to create a commission to investigate the extent of the government’s surveillance activities and recommend legislation to put proper checks on those activities. “This is pretty monumental,” Maass says, speaking to the opportunity the leaks have created for privacy rights groups like his.
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“I do think that there is a window of opportunity here,” said Ginger McCall, a lawyer at Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a research non-profit focused on privacy and civil liberties. “I don’t know exactly how long that window of opportunity stretches, but I think if people care about this issue they should act now.”
EPIC has called for increased oversight from Congress as well as the release of more government documents on the agency’s legal authority to conduct the kind of surveillance that Snowden’s leaked documents confirmed. But McCall says that Congress needs to feel public pressure to take action, and that grassroots action like petitions or “call-in campaigns to Congress” are a good idea. “Anything that galvanizes public support around privacy issues,” McCall says, acknowledging that the public simply accepting a new level of surveillance “is always a problem.”
Before news broke last week that NSA collects so-called metadata on the phone records of virtually all Americans and has access to electronic communications records as well, the American people were largely opposed to the idea of increased government surveillance.
Prior to last week’s revelations, 85 percent of Americans believed it was likely that the government was tracking their phone and email records while 48 percent trusted the government with this information, according to an Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll that will be released in full on Thursday. Just 10 percent of respondents said they would support an expansion of cell phone and email surveillance to improve national security.
Progressive groups are already circulating petitions calling on Congress to investigate the government’s surveillance operations. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, for example, has over 21,000 electronic signatures calling on Congress to investigate NSA’s monitoring of Americans’ phone calls. Credo Action, meanwhile, has over 85,000 signatures for a petition to “Demand President Obama acknowledge his administration's spying programs and provide a full legal justification for indiscriminately spying on Americans.”
After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, polls showed Americans accepting a greater trade-off between security and civil liberties. But over a decade after the attacks, it’s unclear that Americans remain as open to the government intrusions on their privacy.
“We don’t want to come out of this where people are just blindly accepting that the government acts with impunity," Maass said, acknowledging the possibility that Americans might accept the idea of having less privacy. But, he said, it’s better for people to be informed. “If people want to decide that it’s OK, they should decide that it’s OK after they know. And this is an opportunity to demand information,” Maass said.