Spying on the People, by the People

“Explosion at marathon finish

April 15, 2013. I was in
upstate New York when I got the text from my dad. Out of town, but not out of
Boston. I was more than 300 miles away from home, in one of the most rural
parts of America, yet I had cell phone coverage—and so I might as well have been just
down the street.

Information came in bursts. A tidbit from Facebook. 140 characters from Twitter. A photo from The Boston
mobile app. It came, and I began to piece together the horror that had
occurred, learning of how a city tradition on a street I had walked along
dozens of times had taken a deadly turn. Nowadays, when an event happens—boom! It happens, and everyone knows about it. Like the aftershock of a bomb,
the news travels almost instantly.

Was I afraid? Certainly. Entire
blocks of my city were soon put under lockdown in an attempt to locate the

Was I angry? Of course. Red Sox
slugger David Ortiz summed up the popular sentiment of Bostonian solidarity a
few days later with the pithy phrase, “This is our fucking city!”

But what was I prepared to do
about it?

This was an act of terrorism, to
be sure—the very kind of terrorism the government has been trying to prevent
since 9/11. This was terrorism because it inspired terror, something the
government is understandably keen to avoid. But events like these, especially
on the scale of 9/11 and the Marathon bombing, are very rare indeed. The
Washington Post
estimates that only 1 out of 20 million Americans are likely to
die in terror-related activity annually, whereas gun-related deaths, for
instance, occur at a rate of about 1 in 25,000.

Yet the government’s allocation
of resources has been so disproportionately skewed toward counterterrorism that one begins to wonder if we are not actually letting
the terrorists “win” by acting so terrified. This is not to say that terrorism
is not a very real threat. But the aggressive means that our government employs
to prevent it raise the question: Is it really worth it?

Since 9/11, the government has
espoused a very specific method of counterterrorism: the unprecedented use of
surveillance to monitor and spy upon enemies of the United States. Was this
what we needed more of in the wake of the Marathon bombing?

My answer is no.

Just how wide the surveillance
net is already being cast was exposed in files published last May by former
intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden’s files
exposed the PRISM program that allows for secret scraping of private social
media data, and the National Security Agency’s practice of collecting metadata
from hundreds of billions of American phone calls.

American citizens today are faced
with a very real dilemma balancing these encroachments on their personal
privacy with the desire for security against terrorism. As we move forward
into an age dominated by technology, “big data,” and digital methods of
surveillance, the question of how to respond to events like the Marathon bombing will arise more and more often as will this question: Is a democratic surveillance state ever possible?

It is, but it is difficult to

A democratic surveillance state
would be a state in which the people, through Congress, democratically checked
the usage of surveillance, just as they would police any other issue. This
may seem obvious, as it is, after all, one of the fundamental tenets of liberal
democracy upon which this country was founded. But informed regulation is only
possible if we know exactly what we are tacitly condoning.

As it stands now, American
citizens have no idea just how much surveillance is going on, and just how much
security is occurring as a result. The key to changing this is to increase the
transparency of the surveillance programs and bring control of NSA and CIA
activities into the public realm.

But that sounds awfully naïve.
Why would our government ever voluntarily do that?

There are two reasons. Whistleblowers
like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, working alongside organizations like
WikiLeaks, have shown that classified details of government spying will
eventually get out to the public no matter what. Information is more entropic
than ever before. It is harder than ever to keep a secret at a time when online sharing seems almost second nature. If the U.S. government wants to reclaim its
legitimacy, and restore the ethos of a liberal democracy, it should embrace
this fact, not run from it.

But secondly, our government is
ultimately for the people. Our representative republic may be slowly slipping
away, but President Obama’s recent curtailing, however paltry, of the NSA
programs was only inspired by the popular outrage of the people. In the style
of Rand Paul, who filed a class action lawsuit against the government this Wednesday, we can all work to effect the justice we desire—and the government knows that.

The Marathon bombing is an
example of a case where crowd-sourcing technology proved to be invaluable in catching the perpetrators. But it also serves as a cautionary tale
as to what would be necessary to prevent similar attacks in the future—after
all, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the bombers, was an American citizen. 

To handle
such problematic circumstances in the future, we must adopt a democratically
moderated surveillance state going forward. The NSA can continue to pursue a
policy of regulated reconnaissance, because, after all, such programs do have
military defense merit. Citizens do want to be safe from attacks like the Marathon bombing. Just not at the expense of living under a system that we do
not know enough about and do not trust.

Matt Dahl PO ’17 hails from Newton, MA, and is a committed member of Pomona College Mock Trial.

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