Debunking Eight Common Excuses for NSA Mass Surveillance

We've heard from lots of folks whoare passionately concerned about the NSA's mass spying, but are struggling to get their friends and family to understand the problem and join the over a half-million people who have demanded change through stopwatching.us and elsewhere.

Of course, you can show them the Stop Watching Us video and this great segment from Stephen Colbert. And if you'd like a detailed refresher on all the ways NSA is conducing mass surveillance, ProPublica has a handy explainer here.

You can also check out this new video from filmmaker Brian Knappenberger (writer and director of We Are Legion: the Story of the Hacktivists):

Debunking Eight Common Excuses for NSA Mass SurveillanceS

Note: clicking this thumbnail will take you to the New York Times' website.

But you also need to be prepared to respond to the common refrains of folks confused, nonplussed, or simply exhausted from the headlines. So here's a cheat sheet to help you talk about the NSA spying when you're with family and friends.

I have nothing to hide from the government, so why should I worry?

There are a few ways to respond to this, depending on what you think will work best for the person raising the question.

  • Point out how mass surveillance leaves you at the mercy of not only the NSA, but also to the DEA, the FBI and even the IRS. We know that the government claims that any evidence of a "crime" can be sent to the appropriate law enforcement agencies.
  • Tell them that, even if you don't think you have something to hide, it's possible the government thinks you do, or can create some concern about you (or your friends or loved ones). There are so many laws and regulations on the books, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner said the Congressional Research Service did not have the resources to count them all. One legal expert has argued that the average person likely commits three felonies a day without ever realizing. So, you may be technically breaking a law you have no idea about.
  • We all benefit from a system that allows privacy. For example, when journalists can speak to sources without the specter of surveillance, helping fuel investigative journalism and the free flow of information. And this is not just a hypothetical—the Department of Justicesubpoenaed the phone records of Associated Press journalists in an effort to track down government whistleblowers. And it's not just journalists. Activists, political organizers, lawyers, individuals conducting sensitive research, businesses that want to keep their strategies confidential, and many others rely on secure, private, surveillance-free communication.

Isn't the NSA using the mass spying to stop terrorists?

Even the NSA cannot point to a single terrorist attack they've stopped using the Patriot Act phone surveillance program that sweeps up virtually every phone record in the United States. They've thrown out many numbers claiming that the information was helpful in some capacity, including repeatedly claiming that it thwarted some 54 attacks, but those numbers have been thoroughly debunked.

The only remaining example the NSA points to is known as the "Zazi case." However, in that case, the Associated Press reported that the government could have easily stopped the plotwithout the NSA program, under authorities that comply with the Constitution. Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have been saying this for a long time.

That's the point here: we can stop terrorists with law enforcement authorities that this country has been using for decades. We don't need to upend the Constitution to keep the nation safe.

The government will not abuse its power.

Some people believe that the government will never abuse its power, especially when the party they support is in office. You should remind these people that the government has a long history of overstretching its surveillance powers and using that information to try to blackmail people. Example of this include the NSA spying on Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, and even some sitting senators in the 1960s. Imagine how Sen. Joe McCarthy's investigations might have gone if he had access to this kind of spying.

We already have evidence of abuse of power. We know that the NSA analysts were using their surveillance powers to track their ex-wives and husbands, and other love interests. They even had a name for it, LOVEINT. The FISA court has also cited the NSA for violating or ignoring court orders for years at a time. And those are just self-reported abuses. An independent investigation might reveal even more.

Allowing mass spying is patriotic.

Stopping untargeted seizure of information is one of the key reasons we fought the War of Independence and drafted the Fourth Amendment. During colonial times, the "crime" was tax evasion—remember the Boston Tea Party? The British crown issued Writs of Assistance, which were general warrants that allowed the British authorities to search through anyone's papers in order to find those who were skirting the taxes. American patriot James Otis Jr. argued against the "hated writs" but lost his case in the British courts. John Adams noted that from that case, "the child independence was born."

Since that time, warrants have had to specify the persons and places searched. Mass surveillance by the NSA does neither. In short, one of our countries' founding principles is the prohibition on mass searches and seizures.

Kids today (or my friends) post everything they do on Facebook or Twitter, why should we care if the government can see too?

What people choose to put on Facebook or Twitter (or Instagram or Tumblr or some other service) is almost always curated. People put the best or sometimes the worst things that happen to them online, but studies show they still keep things private, and restrict the audience for other information. A new poll shows young people may even be more privacy conscious than older adults.

We all know someone whose Facebook feed continued to show happy pictures even as they went through a terrible breakup or divorce. The point of privacy is control over the information that is available about you. Some people choose to share more, some choose to share less, but nearly everyone wants the power to pick and choose what information is available about them to their friends and to strangers, like future employers or NSA agents.

Google and Facebook have my information, so why shouldn't the NSA?

There are many privacy problems with how the giant Internet companies gather and use so much of your personal data. However, Google and Facebook do not have the power to arrest you and, unlike government surveillance, there are other choices for communication tools. For example, you can use DuckDuckGo instead of Google search.

Remember: while we may not like how companies collect a lot of our information, they are not under the same requirement to follow the Fourth Amendment. We need to protect the private information held by companies too, but the Constitution provides a foundation that always protects our communications from the prying eyes of government.

It's just metadata, so why should I care?

For the mass phone record collection program, the NSA has said it is not "listening in" to telephone calls. Instead they are collecting a record of everyone you call, who calls you, when you're on the phone, the length of your phone call, and at times, even your location.

This "metadata" can be as invasive as the content of your conversations. It can reveal your religious and political views, who you are dating (and when you break up), who your spouse and children are, your movements, and even information your closest friends and family don't know, such as medical conditions.

Additionally, the government is getting more than just metadata. We also know the government has obtained online content, including email, under separate programs, and used the data based on a guess that you are 51 percent likely to be foreign, by scanning large a portion of the total number of emails entering and exiting the United States. Metadata is only a part of the government spying programs.

This sucks, but there's nothing I can do!

Actually there is plenty you can do! First, join the over half-million others and sign our petition at stopwatching.us. Then call your representative in Congress—there are bills going through Congress right now that could curtail some of this spying and bring real transparency and accountability to the NSA. There are also some that need to be opposed so we don't end up legalizing much of this illegal surveillance.

There's lots you can do to fight NSA surveillance. But one of the most important things you can do is explain why this issue is important to friends and family. So please share this guide widely.


This post first appeared on Electronic Frontier Foundation and is republished under Creative Commons license.