== NSA Surveillance and Ethics Introduction: Government surveillance is not a new topic. Espionage is glamorized in movies and most people do not have any objections to gathering private information on who they consider to be the enemy, but the view on surveillance can change dramatically when you are the one who is under the microscope.
Ethics in the Communication Age. What is ethical? Are ethics and laws interchangeable and do they always support each other? Do public safety and the greater good override personal privacy? Who makes this determination? To what extent can the government go with surveillance before it is considered abusive towards a citizen's Constitutional rights? And, how much can private business be required to participate in government surveillance? These issues have been debated for different situations, but more recently the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program has been a controversial issue. September 11, 2001 changed many things in our country. One of the issues that arose from this was the debate over warrantless surveillance by the NSA where one of the parties being monitored could be a United States citizen. This program was put forth as a terrorist surveillance program. The NSA is authorized by Executive (Presidential) order to monitor phone calls and other communications originating outside the United States from parties with known or suspected ties to Al Queda to a recipient within the United States without a warrant, even if the recipient of the communication is a U.S. citizen.
What is the definition of ethics? Ethics is defined as the study of right and wrong regarding human conduct. Specifically, an ethical theory referred to as relativism is what can be applied to this situation. Relativism denies the existence of universal moral norms and that right and wrong are relative to society, culture, or the individual. The debate is not whether known or suspected terrorists who are not United States citizens are being watched, but rather if a citizen's constitutional rights are being violated, even if that citizen is part of a terrorist network.
What exactly is the National Security Agency?The National Security Agency is an American organization that coordinates, directs, and performs highly specialized activities to protect U.S. government information systems and produce foreign signals intelligence information. The NSA is highly technical and is on the forefront of communications and data processing. It is also one of the most important centers of foreign language analysis and research within the government.
Are ethics and legal rulings interchangeable and do they always support one another? Not necessarily. Laws are rules and regulations that are created by parties with the authority to enact these decisions. Laws can have loopholes and not all laws are considered fair or even right. Everything legal is not necessarily ethical and everything ethical is not necesarrily legal. The outcome of the NSA surveillance controversy had more of a legal conclusion than an answer about its ethics. In August 2007 warrantless wiretaps were legalized.
Who were the parties involved in making decisions regarding the NSA controversy? The President, the Republican party, the Democratic party, the Attorney General, Congress, U.S. House of Representatives, various U.S. courts, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), attorneys, private utility companies, and the general public. One of the most audible voices reacting to this was the ACLU. The ACLU was founded by Roger Baldwin, Crystal Eastman, and Albert DeSilver in 1920. The organization has more than 500,000 members and supporters. The mission the ACLU proposes for itself is to preserve all of the following protections and guarantees: Your First Amendment rights - freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly. Your right to equal protection under the law - equal treatment regardless of race, sex, religion, or national origin. Your right to due process - fair treatment of the government whenever the loss of liberty or property is at stake. Your right to privacy - freedom from unwanted government intrusion into your personal and private affairs.
Do public safety and the greater good override personal privacy? This is the debate. James H. Moore states the reason for studying ethics in technology is to determine what should be done whenever there is a policy vacuum. The controversy revolves around whether the warrantless surveillance taps violate the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which permits the President or his delegates to authorize warrantless surveillance for the collection of foreign intelligence if there is no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States person is party. Another contention is, who has the authority to determine whether the surveillance is justified? Under Article II of the Constitution the President is the Commander in Chief and can make military decisions. Congress also passed the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) after the 9/11 attacks which authorized the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against nations, organizations or persons that he determines planned, authorized, committed,and aided or harbored those involved in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks which may help to prevent any future acts of terrorism. Those opposed to the stance that the President has the authority to make this determination argue that Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the authority to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and Naval Forces to make laws regarding military and wartime issues. Those opposed also view the NSA surveillance as an infringement of the 4th amendment of no illegal search and seizure.
To what extent can the government go with surveillance? Little technological information is known about the NSA wiretaps. Since the technology is currently being used it would be considered a breach of National Security for this to be revealed. Other surveillance programs have been used in the past and we can take some of the technology that was employed to garner an idea of what the NSA surveillance is capable of. One such surveillance program was called Echelon. The technology for Echelon was as follows: 1.) One million inputs per half hour are generated. 2.) Filters will keep only 6,500 out of the one million inputs. 3.) One thousand inputs that meet criteria such as keywords are forwarded. 4.) From the forwarded 1,000, ten are selected by analysts. 5.) Out of the ten selected, one report is made. Please visit  for more information. If the technology for the NSA surveillance is superior to Echelon as one can assume it to be, then what exactly is it capable of? Even though it was decided that warrantless wiretaps were legal in this situation, this is where the subject of ethics enters. Would as many people consider this to be a violation of privacy if the potential for misuse and abuse were not present? If the strict guarantee that monitoring would only be used for the intended purpose of National Security then the fear over privacy may not be as great. Unfortunately, those with power cannot always be counted on to do the ethical thing, even if what they are doing falls within legal parameters. A situation that highlights this possible misuse is a case pertaining to the appeal filed by two Albany, New York men who were convicted of criminal charges in an FBI anti-terrorist operation. They are appealing on the grounds they allegedly have evidence that information obtained by the NSA wiretaps was used in their conviction, but was not made public at their trial or handed over when their attorneys requested it during discovery.
How much can private business be expected to participate in government surveillance? Executive Director Anthony D. Romero of the ACLU said: “We cannot sit by while the government and the phone companies collude in this massive, illegal, and fundamentally un-American invasion of our privacy and unfortunately, we cannot wait for Congress to act. The ACLU is mobilizing its members and supporters nationwide to demand investigations into this shocking breach of trust. And we are asking the FCC to use its authority to uncover the facts about how far the President's illegal spying has gone. The American people want answers." Three major telecommunications companies, AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon have cooperated with the NSA in an effort to collect calling information on American citizens." AT&T customers claim they had been damaged by AT&T cooperation’s with the NSA. AT&T allowed the NSA to intercept and analyze communications along with performing data mining functions from within the same building as AT&T in San Francisco. Companies such as Cingular Wireless, Comcast, Cox Communications, Sprint, Nextel, and T-Mobile all stated they had not turned over any information to the NSA without being required by law. In response to feeling AT&T violated federal laws where it could be considered criminal for any person or company to aid in the interception of any wire, oral, or electronic communication unless specifically authorized by law, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco civil liberties organization, sued AT&T.
Conclusion: Ethics can be debated in many various forms. Even though warrantless surveillance was decided to be legal, the question of it being ethical has not yet been answered and likely will continue to be debated.
Kizza, J. (2003). Ethical and Social Issues in the Information Age (2nd ed.) New York: Springer-Verlag.
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