Government Surveillance in the US. Privacy versus Security

Essay, 2015

7 Pages


Government Surveillance

In the beginning, the National Security Agency (NSA) was founded November 8, 1952 and headquartered at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. The agency is tasked with collecting and processing foreign intelligence to help with military operations (“FAQs”). A primary objective of the agency has always been cryptanalysis as part of its foreign intelligence operations. The agency still seeks to collect information on foreign nations in today’s world, however it now also concentrates its efforts on monitoring and collecting information regarding its very own citizens. This paper explores and analyzes government surveillance that has startled the nation.

Today, the NSA is widely known among IT professionals as an agency that collects an extremely large amount of internet data. By collecting internet data the NSA tries to protect information, systems, and data vital to the interworking of the US. This includes corporate, government, and citizen’s data. After collecting data the NSA collaborates with other government agencies and provides them with the information they need.

The reason the NSA wants to collect every MB of data it can is clear. Terrorists have been able to get into this country several times and detonate explosives killing tens, hundreds, and even thousands of Americans. These events are often associated with the wars we have gotten ourselves in either by participating in them or supplying one side with ammunitions. Some of these events predate even the NSA and a couple examples occurred only years after the FBI was founded in 1908. One tragic event known as the “Black Tom” bombing occurred July 30, 1916 at the Black Tom railroad. German agents detonated two million tons of war materials, killing three men and a baby. The Germans were trying to stop the U.S from providing England with ammunitions and this happened even though the U.S. was doing nothing more than providing ammunitions. Another event occurred four years later and was known as the Terror on Wall Street. On September 20, 1920 a horse drawn wagon stopped with thousands of pounds of explosives and weights in it. The subsequent explosion killed thirty people and injured three hundred more (The FBI a Centennial History 21). The terrorist act remains unsolved today, although the FBI had their suspicions of who orchestrated the tragic event. Events such as these are the reason that the NSA believes that they need to monitor everyone. 9/11, which occurred less than twenty years ago was the final stroke although some people would argue that they have been collecting large amounts of data on citizens even before that event.

The NSA doesn’t use the data it collects. It forwards the information to another government agency that values it. Two of these agencies are the CIA and the FBI. The FBI is a law enforcement organization and one of its priorities is to stop terrorist attacks ("WHO WE ARE."). The CIA states they are “an independent agency responsible for providing national security intelligence to senior US policymakers” ("Today's CIA"). Allowing these government entities to access levels of information that have never before been seen may create an enormous problem and the greatest privacy concern ever seen in this country. Some foreign people have and will always attempt to diminish the significance of the U.S. and threaten to harm our country. The actions taken by the NSA are logical but this level of access to information goes too far. The system which allows the NSA to collect so much data violates the constitution and denies US citizen’s privacy.

Less than five years ago the scale of government surveillance could partially be attributed to myth. In the U.S. many citizens knew that typing key words or phrases on the internet might get them in trouble. For instance, googling how to make a bomb and then trying to buy the required items might set off some alarms. In the next few days’ people joked that men in black suits might show up at your door. No one imagined that programs such as PRISM existed.

PRISM is a program that allows the NSA to collect data directly from the servers of corporations. Corporations such as Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, and Skype participate in this program. If this isn’t scary enough, PRISM also allows them to collect information and monitor people in real time. In the beginning, the FBI went to the software giant Microsoft with court orders asking them to hand over information. Large amounts of data related to terrorists was seized by agents in this way. The origin of every last megabyte of information could not be separated and sometimes data was collected on American citizens. This was the early beginnings of PRISM. Today the NSA has made it much easier to collect the information it wants.

PRISM is a program like no other and “Whether by clever choice or coincidence, Prism appears to do what its name suggests. Like a triangular piece of glass, Prism takes large beams of data and helps the government find discrete, manageable strands of information.” (Apuzo et al). The program works with the assistance of hundreds of companies and is the result of a more stream-lined approach at collecting data. The program is a huge improvement over the earlier interaction between the FBI and Microsoft. Systems in place now allow for data to be passed along electronically and effortlessly.

Upstream is a much broader surveillance program that is also being used. Upstream works in an entirely different way and is able to collect much more information. Most of the data in the world flows through the U.S. by the way of undersea cables and this program collects all of that information. The NSA has protected this program by stating that the program is primarily geared toward capturing foreign traffic even though data on U.S. citizens is also captured. All this data is stored for future use just in case a government entity needs access to it in the future.

These programs often operate without certain levels of scrutiny and endanger the future of the U.S. A NSA analyst can leak secrets to other countries or try to blackmail current U.S. officials. Dangers such as these are valid reasons to scrap collecting data on U.S. citizens. The analyst who has access to all the data on any citizen is very powerful. Oversight of these programs can’t mitigate all the dangers.

Edward Snowden, a former NSA analyst, informed the public that the government had and continues to spy on them. In 2013 the Guardian published several articles revealing the extent of the government surveillance programs that I have mentioned previously. By releasing these articles a great debate concerning the privacy of citizens in the U.S. was started. Details of the PRISM and Upstream programs finally came to light and Americans were astounded. However government officials were not amused. President Barack Obama defended the actions taken by the NSA and stated, “you can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience ... We’re going to have to make some choices as a society” (qtd. in Finley, Esposito 3). This statement doesn’t justify the actions taken by the government but rather assures that this issue will not be adequately taken care of in the future. Data collection practices are the easy way to deal with threats and they sacrifice liberty. Ben Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Instead of sacrificing our rights we should continue to support even if it's not the easiest option.


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Government Surveillance in the US. Privacy versus Security
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government, surveillance, privacy, security
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Kevin McCoy (Author), 2015, Government Surveillance in the US. Privacy versus Security, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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