This House believes you have nothing to worry about surveillance if you have done nothing wrong.

It is an old well-worn phrase when it comes to the state and surveillance that if you have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide then there is nothing to worry about. Britain’s Foreign Secretary trotted this idea out shortly after the PRISM scandal broke saying “if you are a law abiding citizen of this country going about your business and your personal life you have nothing to fear, nothing to fear about the British state or intelligence agencies listening to the contents of your phone calls or anything like that.” He added that the intelligence agencies were doing good work “to stop your identity being stolen, and to stop a terrorist blowing you up tomorrow. But if you are a would be terrorist, or the center of a criminal network, or a foreign intelligence agency trying to spy on Britain, you should be worried because that is what we work on”.[1]

William Hague was responding to suggestions that GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters – the UKs equivalent of the NSA) might be obtaining information on British citizens through a US programme called PRISM. PRISM is a NSA Program which works with the giants of Silicon Valley to extract everything from email to VoIP, photos to video conferencing. This is done from “Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.” i.e. pretty much anyone who is anyone in the US internet business. Chillingly the Edward Snowdon who leaked the information about PRISM says “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type”.[2]

Only a day before there was another leak about US surveillance activities, this one about cell phones. The leak was a copy of a court order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ordering the handing over of “all call detail records or "telephony metadata" created by Verizon… including but not limited to session identifying information (e.g., originating and terminating telephone number, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, International Mobile station Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, etc.), trunk identifier, telephone calling card numbers, and time and duration of call”.[3] Such information might seem harmless but can reveal surprising amounts, and from a privacy perspective it is completely indiscriminate as it covers everyone on the network. This is a far cry from obtaining a court order to get information about a few phones that are known to be used by terrorists.

There is of course the problem that in just responding about GCHQ (Britain’s equivalent of the NSA) Hague was ignoring the larger issue of the NSA spying but letting this go is there nothing to worry about all this hovering up of data that appears to occur regardless of whether it is by your government or someone else’s?

Some surveillance is necessary. It is a key part in preventing terrorist attacks from occurring so the question has always been about a balance between security and privacy. Before the leaking of the details of surveillance by the NSA and GCHQ most people in democracies either thought the balance was about right or more should be done to ensure security. In the United States today 47% say that the government has gone too far in restricting civil liberties, up 15% since October 2010, against only 35% believing that the security policies have not gone far enough to protect the country.[4]

[1] The Andrew Marr Show, ‘Data snooping: law abiding citizens have 'nothing to fear', says Hague – video’, guardian.co.uk, 9 June 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/video/2013/jun/09/data-snooping-law-abiding-citizens-nothing-fear-hague-video

[2] Gellman, Barton, and Poitras, Laura, ‘U.S., British intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program’, Washington Post, 6 June 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/us-intelligence-mining-data-from-nine-us-internet-companies-in-broad-secret-program/2013/06/06/3a0c0da8-cebf-11e2-8845-d970ccb04497_story.html

[3] United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Washington D.C., ‘In RE application of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for an order requiring the production of tangible things from Verizon Business Network Services, INC. on behalf of MCI Communication Services, INC., D/B/A Verizon Business Services’, guardian .co.uk, 6 June 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2013/jun/06/verizon-telephone-data-court-order

[4] Pew Research, ‘Few See Adequate Limits on NSA surveillance Program’, 26 July 2013, http://www.people-press.org/2013/07/26/few-see-adequate-limits-on-nsa-surveillance-program/

 

Title 
There is no physical risk
Point 

In terms of physical risk it is almost certainly true that you have nothing to fear from government having loads of information. With the exception perhaps of the Russian FSB and despite the James Bond films intelligence agencies in democracies are not in the habit of bumping people off this mortal coil. In this sense it does not matter at all what information the intelligence services have on you; no matter how naughty you may have been it is not going to be worth some kind of physical retaliation. Essentially the argument here is that it does no harm, and even does some good, so why should it not continue?

Counterpoint 

Physical risk is not the only risk that people worry about. Denying someone their liberties such as privacy or freedom of expression does not pose a physical risk to them but that act is still wrong and it is still worth worrying about. Citizens have the right to go about their own business without their government spying on them. They should not have to concern themselves with what information the government does or does not have.

Title 
You are not going to be arrested because the government has access to your communications
Point 

Clearly much of the time you really do have nothing to worry about when it comes to intelligence agencies having information about you. People are not regularly arrested without just cause and we have little evidence that democratic governments use this information to put pressure on their citizens. There have been no known cases of this happening since the start of the war on terror.[1] When it comes to foreign governments this is even less of a cause for concern; while your own government might be interested in various aspects of your life to help it with the services it provides foreign governments only have one motivation; their own national security. If you are not a threat to that national security the chances of them ever taking any action against you are essentially nonexistent.

[1] Posner, Eric, ‘I Don’t See a Problem Here’, The New York Times Room for Debate, 10 June 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/06/09/is-the-nsa-surveillance-threat-real-or-imagined

Counterpoint 

There have been wrongful arrests during the war against terror. Riwaan Sabir was wrongfully arrested under the terrorism act in 2008 for downloading an al-Qaida training manual despite the manual having been downloaded from a US government website and been for his master’s degree at the University of Nottingham.[1] Since the offence was online it is certainly possible that information from spying was a part of the cause for the arrest. It is true that we probably have less cause for concern when it is foreign governments doing the spying but this could still have consequences such as being denied entry if you wish to travel to or through the country.

[1] Townsend, Mark, ‘Police ‘made up’ evidence against Muslim student’, The Guardian, 14 July 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/jul/14/police-evidence-muslim-student-rizwaan-sabir

Title 
There are safeguards to prevent misuse
Point 

In democracies there are numerous safeguards and levels of oversight to prevent abuse. In the UK for example there is a “strong framework of democratic accountability and oversight”. Agencies are required “to seek authorisation for their operations from a Secretary of State, normally the Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary.” The Secretary is given legal advice and comments from civil servants. Once the Secretary has given assent they are “subject to independent review by an Intelligence Services Commissioner and an Interception of Communications Commissioner… to ensure that they are fully compliant with the law”.[1]

[1] Hague, William, ‘Prism statement in full’, politics.co.uk, 10 June 2013, http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2013/06/10/william-hague-prism-statement-in-full

Counterpoint 

In the UK case this is not all it appears. The Intelligence Services Commissioner is comparatively toothless, and both it and the Interception of Communications Commissioner are immensely understaffed for monitoring all UK intelligence agencies. Some experts such as Professor Peter Sommer have even suggested “I am not sure that ministers or the ISC would know what questions to ask.”[1] Moreover this is trusting that ministers have the best interests of the people at heart, in the case of this conservative government which seems perfectly happy to introduce bills that erode freedoms such as the ‘snoopers charter’ this seems unlikely.

[1] Hopkins, Nick, ‘William Hague on spying scandal: what he said … and what he didn't say’, guardian.co.uk, 10 June 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/10/william-hague-spying-scandal-nsa-statement

Title 
No one will ever actually look at the information
Point 

If the concern is privacy then there really should be little concern at all because there is safety in numbers. The NSA and other intelligence services don’t have the time or motivation to be tracking down all of our foibles.[1] If the intelligence agencies are watching everyone then they clearly do not have the personnel to be watching the actual communications. Instead certain things or patterns will raise alarm bells and a tiny number will be investigated more closely.

[1] Walt, Stephen M., ‘The real threat behind the NSA surveillance programs’, Foreign Policy, 10 June 2013, http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/06/10/what_me_worry_the_real_threat_behind_the_nsa

Counterpoint 

Clearly if no one ever actually looked at any information provided by surveillance then there would be no point in conducting it. Even if it were true that no one looks at any of the data being watched is still an intrusion that affects behaviour. It will affect decisions that are perfectly lawful because there will always be the slight worry that someone who you don’t want to have that information because they will think differently of you will obtain it. When the information is out of your hands you can no longer be certain who will obtain it.[1] Since people have been arrested for the information that has been conducted, clearly sometimes the information is checked and used.

[1] Moore, Mica, and Stein, Bennett, ‘The Chilling Effects of License-Plate Location Tracking’, American Civil Liberties Union, 23 July 2013, http://www.aclu.org/blog/technology-and-liberty-national-security/chilling-effects-license-plate-location-tracking

Title 
A threat to democracy
Point 

Yes the NSA is unlikely to look at individual’s personal information if the person in question is nobody of interest yet there are people who may be of interest to the state who are essentially innocent of anything except annoying the state. The ability for almost anyone in the intelligence apparatus to look up personal information has to worry anyone who might otherwise dissent, investigate the government, or turn whistleblower. Intelligence officials can hold the information as a weapon to ensure compliance and ruin careers if they don’t get their way.[1] This has happened before. In the US when diplomat Joseph C. Wilson published about the manipulation of intelligence on uranium from Niger being used as part of the justification for the invasion of Iraq his wife had her cover blown and career destroyed by people within the Department of Defense.[2] When we know that the Obama administration has been more determined than ever to prevent leaks and prosecute perpetrators can it really be said there is no damage to democracy if these courageous people are not coming forward?

[1] Walt, Stephen M., ‘The real threat behind the NSA surveillance programs’, Foreign Policy, 10 June 2013, http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/06/10/what_me_worry_the_real_threat_behind_the_nsa

[2] Wilson, Joseph C., ‘What I Didn’t Find in Africa’, The New York Times, 6 July 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/06/opinion/what-i-didn-t-find-in-africa.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

Lewis, Neil A., ‘Source of C.I.A. Leak Said to Admit Role’, The New York Times, 30 August 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/30/washington/30armitage.html?_r=0

Counterpoint 

Far from threatening democracy the intelligence agencies are using this information to protect democracy from terrorists who wish to overthrow the whole concept of democratic governance. Intelligence agencies are clearly under civilian control and have several layers of oversight to ensure that this kind of misuse does not take place. In the United States this means there is oversight from Congress and in the UK from Parliament. There is also judicial oversight in the form of the Interception of Communications Commissioner and Intelligence Services Commissioner in the UK[1] and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in the US.[2]

[1] ‘Judicial Oversight’, Security Service MI5https://www.mi5.gov.uk/home/about-us/how-mi5-is-governed/oversight/judicial-oversight.html

[2] ‘Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’, Federal Judicial Centerhttp://www.fjc.gov/history/home.nsf/page/courts_special_fisc.html

Title 
Lack of trust
Point 

The problem is that when it comes to privacy it is not really our personal physical security that we are worried about. Part of the problem is that we value our right to a private life and that we should have control over that to the extent of being able to decide how much information others know about us. To a large extent this is an issue of trust; we (sometimes wrongly) trust our friends and others with information about us. We often trust faceless entities; companies and governments too though usually to less of an extent. But a lot of that trust is as a result of their willingness to tell us what they know about us, to provide information in return, or to provide methods for us to restrict what they know. In cases like this that trust has not been earned; we were not asked, and not obviously given anything back, and there seems little change of us changing the terms of the relationship.

Counterpoint 

The intelligence agencies are not violating any right to privacy if they are not actually looking at the content of any emails, even less so as they in almost all cases won’t even be looking at the metadata. It is not possible for intelligence agencies to be asking the people before engaging in every surveillance policy as even knowing the broad outlines of what the surveillance involves could allow the targets of that surveillance to avoid that surveillance. While individual citizens are not asked this is where the people’s representatives should be trusted, it is ministers and members of parliament that allow surveillance and hold the agencies to account.

Title 
Abuse of information and power by intelligence agencies
Point 

Even when the government does not intend harm there are still cases where direct harms can occur as a result of surveillance. The most worrying are where the state abuses the information it holds. Abuse of power and of the information held by government is perhaps the main reason why it is difficult to trust in intelligence agencies. In one historical example from the 1950s FBI agents interviewed a Brooklyn liquor importer for repeating a rumor that the FBI Director J Edgar Hoover might be a “queer”. This clearly necessitated a reminder through questioning that Hoover’s “personal conduct is beyond reproach,” leading to the man quickly agreeing that “he thinks Mr. Hoover has done a wonderful job.”[1] Did this have anything to do with national security? No. Was it an abuse of power and surveillance? Yes. So far as we are aware the intelligence agencies don’t do things quite like this anymore but the revelations like PRISM, or the waterboarding a decade ago, show they are still happy to abuse their position from time to time. This is hardly a good way to build trust.

[1] Gage, Beverly, ‘It’s Not About Your Cat Photos’, Slate, 10 June 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2013/06/nsa_prism_program_can_we_trust_the_government_with_our_secrets_no.html

Counterpoint 

The circumstances in the cold war were clearly different to today so this kind of abuse of power would be unlikely to happen. More broadly yes there is the potential for abuse in much the same way that there are people in banks who could steal large quantities of other people’s money. That there is a potential opportunity does not mean it is ever used. Abuse can never be totally avoided but if abuse is a concern then whether or not there is a program of surveillance is not the highest concern. Even if there were not wide ranging surveillance problems those in intelligence looking to abuse their position would be able to obtain the information because they have the technology to do so.

Title 
The use of meta data causes unintentional harm
Point 

The other possible harm is unintentional. The amount of data involved is huge and too much even for a vast organization like the NSA to actually physically look at. Instead it uses data mining. This is why the NSA wants data that may seem useless to others. The records of which phone numbers are phoning who, as the NSA was obtaining of Verizon, might seem useless but can tell them who you are contacting, and how much contact time they have. In turn they could look at who your contacts have been talking to and if it turns out that several of them talk regularly to suspected terrorists then even if you are innocent a finger of suspicion might be pointed. There has even been a study showing that individuals can be identified from just the time of call and nearest cell phone tower after just four calls.[1] PRISM gives the NSA even more ‘useless’ data to play with. The results of this data mining may usually be accurate but will not always be so and the result of being flagged like this can be problematic for individuals. It may mean additional airport security, having problems getting a visa,[2] or in the worst case finding its way onto a no fly list.

[1] De Montjoye, Yves-Alexandre, et al., ‘Unique in the Crowd: The privacy bounds of human mobility’, Scientific Reports, 3, 25 March 2013, http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/130325/srep01376/full/srep01376.html

[2] Brown, Ian, ‘Yes, NSA surveillance should worry the law-abiding’, guardian.co.uk, 10 June 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/10/nsa-snooping-law-abiding

Counterpoint 

Metadata and data-mining are not new they are simply becoming more frequent, and more accurate as a result of more information. In the past there have been other ways of collecting data; tax records, voter registration, reverse telephone directories.[1] At the same time government and the intelligence agencies are not even those who make most use of this, there are whole private companies devoted to sifting this data.[2] There is little reason why we should particularly worry about this being done by intelligence agencies.

[1] Gomez, David, ‘Hoovered’, Foreign Policy, 11 June 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/06/11/fbi_hoover_nsa_prism_verizon_metadata

[2] See the debatabase debate ‘This House would not allow companies to collect/sell the personal data of their clients’.

Title 
Loss of Privacy
Point 

It is wrong to state that we only have anything to ‘fear’ if we have done something wrong; a great many people want to keep things private where what they have done is morally perfectly right and justifiable. It is perfectly justified for a married couple to want to keep a video of them having sex private – even if it is sent from one partner to the other by email, or for someone to keep his/her sexual orientation secret even if they have told someone about it.[1] If we want such information to be kept private does the state have any business picking that information up from our emails? It may not go any further than the intelligence agency, it is possible no one there will look at it but it is still an invasion of privacy.

[1] Phillipson, Gavin, ‘Q&A: The right to privacy’, BBC Religion, 14 June 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/22887499

Counterpoint 

Is it really an invasion of privacy if no one else knows about it even if that information is added to some giant computer database? The information we wish to keep secret remains a secret, in the unlikely event that some analyst reads the information they are never going to broadcast it to others as keeping secrets is a part of what intelligence agencies do.

Bibliography 

The Andrew Marr Show, ‘Data snooping: law abiding citizens have 'nothing to fear', says Hague – video’, guardian.co.uk, 9 June 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/video/2013/jun/09/data-snooping-law-abiding-citizens-nothing-fear-hague-video

Brown, Ian, ‘Yes, NSA surveillance should worry the law-abiding’, guardian.co.uk, 10 June 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/10/nsa-snooping-law-abiding

De Montjoye, Yves-Alexandre, et al., ‘Unique in the Crowd: The privacy bounds of human mobility’, Scientific Reports, 3, 25 March 2013, http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/130325/srep01376/full/srep01376.html

‘Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’, Federal Judicial Center, http://www.fjc.gov/history/home.nsf/page/courts_special_fisc.html

Gage, Beverly, ‘It’s Not About Your Cat Photos’, Slate, 10 June 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2013/06/nsa_prism_program_can_we_trust_the_government_with_our_secrets_no.html

Gellman, Barton, and Poitras, Laura, ‘U.S., British intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program’, Washington Post, 6 June 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/us-intelligence-mining-data-from-nine-us-internet-companies-in-broad-secret-program/2013/06/06/3a0c0da8-cebf-11e2-8845-d970ccb04497_story.html

Gomez, David, ‘Hoovered’, Foreign Policy, 11 June 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/06/11/fbi_hoover_nsa_prism_verizon_metadata

Hague, William, ‘Prism statement in full’, politics.co.uk, 10 June 2013, http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2013/06/10/william-hague-prism-statement-in-full

Hopkins, Nick, ‘William Hague on spying scandal: what he said … and what he didn't say’, guardian.co.uk, 10 June 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/10/william-hague-spying-scandal-nsa-statement

Lewis, Neil A., ‘Source of C.I.A. Leak Said to Admit Role’, The New York Times, 30 August 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/30/washington/30armitage.html?_r=0

Moore, Mica, and Stein, Bennett, ‘The Chilling Effects of License-Plate Location Tracking’, American Civil Liberties Union, 23 July 2013, http://www.aclu.org/blog/technology-and-liberty-national-security/chilling-effects-license-plate-location-tracking

Pew Research, ‘Few See Adequate Limits on NSA surveillance Program’, 26 July 2013, http://www.people-press.org/2013/07/26/few-see-adequate-limits-on-nsa-surveillance-program/

Phillipson, Gavin, ‘Q&A: The right to privacy’, BBC Religion, 14 June 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/22887499

Posner, Eric, ‘I Don’t See a Problem Here’, The New York Times Room for Debate, 10 June 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/06/09/is-the-nsa-surveillance-threat-real-or-imagined

‘Judicial Oversight’, Security Service MI5, https://www.mi5.gov.uk/home/about-us/how-mi5-is-governed/oversight/judicial-oversight.html

Townsend, Mark, ‘Police ‘made up’ evidence against Muslim student’, The Guardian, 14 July 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/jul/14/police-evidence-muslim-student-rizwaan-sabir

United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Washington D.C., ‘In RE application of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for an order requiring the production of tangible things from Verizon Business Network Services, INC. on behalf of MCI Communication Services, INC., D/B/A Verizon Business Services’, guardian .co.uk, 6 June 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2013/jun/06/verizon-telephone-data-court-order

Walt, Stephen M., ‘The real threat behind the NSA surveillance programs’, Foreign Policy, 10 June 2013, http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/06/10/what_me_worry_the_real_threat_behind_the_nsa

Wilson, Joseph C., ‘What I Didn’t Find in Africa’, The New York Times, 6 July 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/06/opinion/what-i-didn-t-find-in-africa.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

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