Mission Statement

Government surveillance is not a new topic. Most people do not have objections to gathering informtion on those they consider to be the enemy, but the view on surveillance can change dramatically when the enemy is not easily identifiable and in order to identify the enemy you may be put under the microscope.

The National Security Agency Controversy

September 11, 2001 changed many things in our country. One issue that arose from this was the debate over warrantless wiretaps by the National Security Agency (NSA). This program was put forth as an initiative for terrorist surveillance. The NSA is authorized by Executive (Presidential) order to monitor phone calls and other communication originating outside of the United States from parties with known or suspected ties to al Qaeda to a recipient within the United States without a warrant even if the recipient of the communication is a U.S. citizen.

The NSA surveillance program has been a forerunner for debate within our society. The National Security Agency is an American organization that coordinates, directs, and performs specialized activities to protect United States 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.

Ethics in the Communication Age

What are Ethics?

Ethics are defined as the study of right and wrong regarding human conduct. An ethical theory known as relativism 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.

Are Ethics and Legal Rulings Interchangeable?

Not necessarily. Laws are rules and regulations that are created by parties with the authority to enact these decisions. Laws can have loopholes where the intended purpose of the law can be lost to a technicality. Not all laws are considered fair or even right, therefore, everything legal is not always ethical and everything ethical is not always legal. The outcome of the NSA surveillance controversy has more of a legal conclusion than an answer about its ethics. In August, 2007 warrantless wiretaps were legalized.

Who Were the Parties Involved in the NSA Controversy?

The President, the NSA, both the Republican and Democratic Parties, The Attorney General, Congress, the 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 members of the general public were all either directly or indirectly involved. One of the most audible voices reacting to warrantless wiretaps 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 the following protections and guarantees: Your First Amendment Rights - freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, and redress of the government. 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 by 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.

Who Has the Authority to Determine if Warrantless Surveillance is Justified?

Under Article II of the Constitution the President is the Commander and Chief and can make military decisions. Congress also passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) after the 9/11 attacks. AUMF authorizes the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against nations, organizations, or persons 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 position that the President is subject 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 and to make laws regarding military and wartime issues.

Do Public Safety and the Greater Good Override Personal Privacy?

Determining what should be done whenever there is a policy vacuum is the reason James H. Moore states for studying ethics in application to technology. Ethics have not always remained in tandem with technology or time. This controversy revolves around whether warrantless surveillance violates the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). FISA permits the President or his delegates to authoize warrantless surveillance for the collection of foreign intelligence if there is no substanial liklihood the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States citizen is party. The President and his administration argued that since the communication originated from a foreign location and from a non-citizen that this was collection of foreign intelligence regardless of the recipient, therefore, it was not a violation of FISA. Those opposed claimed the wiretaps violated the Fourth Amendment of no illegal search and seizure.

To What Extent Can the Government Go With This Type of Surveillance?

Little technological information is known about the NSA wiretaps. It would be considered a breach of national security to reveal the technology currently being employed. Other surveillance programs have been used in the past and some of that technology can be studied to garner an idea of what the NSA surveillance is capable of. One such program was called Echelon. The technology for Echelon was as follows: 1. One million inputs per half hour were generated. 2. Filters kept only 6,500 out of the one million inputs. 3. One thousand inputs that met criteria such as keywords were forwarded. 4. From the forwarded one thousand, ten were selected by analysts. 5. Out of the ten selected, one report was made. 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 for this situation, this is where the subject of ethics enters the picture. 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 of privacy infringement may not be as great. Unfortunately, those with power cannot always be counted on to adhere to guarantees or do what would be considered ethical, even if what they are doing falls within legal parameters. An example that highlights this possible misuse is a case pertaining to an appeal filed by two Albany, New York men who were convicted of criminal charges in an FBI anti- terorist operation. The appeal was filed on the grounds the two men allegedly had evidence that information obtained by the NSA wiretaps was used in their conviction, but was not made public at trial or handed over when their attorneys requested it during discovery.

How Much Can Private Business be Expected to Participate in Government Surveillance?

Anthony Romero, Executive Director 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 game 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 claimed they had been damged by AT&T's cooperation with the NSA. AT&T supposedly 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, Nextell, and T-Mobile all claimed 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.


Ethics could be debated until the end of time without any conclusives absolutes in a matter such as this. One side is arguing national security and the other side is arguing invasion of privacy. The one thing that will tilt favor to one side or the other is if an event takes place that will either validate or negate this type of program.


Kizza, J. (2003) Ethical and Social Issues in the Information Age (2nd ed.) New York: Springer-Verlag.

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