Government and Corporate Mass Surveillance in the United States

Tolerance, Impact of Freedom of Expression, and Lack of Significant Policy Change

Sara J Evans

        Citizens of the United States are fortunate to have protections, because of the Constitution, against unreasonable government intrusion into their personal lives.  A judge must issue a warrant before a physical search can legally be conducted by the government.  However, individuals are not afforded the same protections from electronic surveillance. The authors of the Constitution likely never fathomed the rapid advancement of technology and corporate as well as government intrusion into most every personal aspect of the lives of United States citizens today.  Considering the careful wording of the Constitution to conserve privacy and defend against government impingement, the tolerance of such surveillance by United States citizens is surprising because this type of scrutiny can impact freedom of expression, and even with the knowledge of such monitoring, the majority of citizens have yet to demand significant policy change.

Tolerance of Mass Surveillance

     Convenience is the fundamental reason most people in the United States give up their rights to privacy. In an interview from The Harvard Gazette, Bruce Schneier, a cyber security expert, explains that people are willing to accept monitoring by government and corporations because it is a fact of life in contemporary society.  Most people focus on issues currently covered in the news, and because mass surveillance is not an ongoing topic, it receives little public attention (Mineo 2018).

     Personal data has transformed people from consumers to products, and this is the corporate model of the internet accepted by citizens of the United States in exchange for free use of everything from Facebook to cellphone providers.  In order to function in modern society, people need cellphones, email, credit cards, and social media accounts (Mineo 2018). Some people argue that mass surveillance in exchange for convenience and free services is reasonable because they have “nothing to hide,” and therefore, nothing to fear, but Abdo (2015) argues that there is no reason for the government to intrude on the lives of everyday citizens.  The lack of transparency about what the United States government does with the information it is collecting impedes the citizen’s ability to make sure the information is accurate.  What is more is that this type of monitoring can incite fear in the population and produce negative consequences for a free and open society (Abdo 2015).

Impact on Freedom of Expression

     A recent study published in the Internet Policy Review suggests that there are indeed “chilling effects,” or hesitations by people concerning speech or conduct because of fear of legal repercussions. There are multiple aspects to this “chilling effect,” and the study shows a disproportional impact on younger people and women as compared to other demographics.  Younger people and women are not as inclined to do something to defend themselves in the face of online regulatory threats and laws passed to prevent cyberbullying result in women sharing less content online.  Also noted in this study is a secondary “chilling effect” of online behavior when others (not the user themselves) in a social network receive threats about legal action (Penney 2017).

     German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann introduced a political and mass communications theory in 1974 called the spiral of silence which suggests that people who have a minority opinion on a public issue instinctively restrain themselves from speaking out for fear of social isolation. A recent study in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly explores how impressions and rationalizations of mass surveillance can negatively impact democratic discourse through the inhibiting communication of minority political opinions.  Those who believe surveillance is imperative to preserve national security that they “have nothing to hide” are the same people who are most vulnerable to reactionary behavior and would suppress their minority opinions when they thought they were being monitored.  Only a small number of people make decisions about sharing minority opinions regardless of whether they believe they are being surveilled, and these same people believe government monitoring is inappropriate (Stoycheff 2016).

Lack of Significant Policy Change

     At what point should citizens of the United States demand significant policy change to help protect personal data and privacy?  The revelations, made by whistleblower Edward Snowden, about such tools as XKeyscore and PRISM, used by the National Security Agency (NSA) to search extensive databases of millions of people made headline news in 2013.  Snowden revealed that as a contractor for the NSA he could easily wiretap anyone including private citizens, federal judges, and the President of the United States with nothing more than their personal e-mail using XKeyscore (Greenwald 2013). 

     The Director of National Intelligence issued a press release titled Facts on the Collection of Intelligence Pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act just one month before Snowden’s revelations. Under the guise of preserving national security through the accumulation of foreign intelligence data, the press release outlines the statutory authority for surveillance and the legal steps needed.  The press release explicitly states that PRISM is not a covert data mining program (Director 2013) even though Snowden claims it is a system that accesses personal information stored in prominent companies like Facebook and Google.

     Interestingly, since these revelations made almost six years ago, Congress has done little to increase privacy protections for citizens of the United States.  In fact, other than passing into law the USA Freedom Act, which impacted just one government surveillance program, the NSA’s data collection has remained the same including the technology that allows for the surveillance.  Privacy for personal data was not an issue in the 2016 election, and the majority of legislatures are not interested in supporting policy change in this arena.  Not only has Congress moved on after gaining knowledge about government and corporate mass surveillance, so to have most people (Mineo 2017).

     Society is more than willing to allow mass surveillance if it results in convenient services for them – even if it is considered morally wrong. This is a significant change in public opinion from the 1970s when Congress made certain types of subliminal advertising illegal based on morality.  Schneier suggests that if cyber-manipulation is defined as a deceptive and unfair business practice, it can be prohibited by the Federal Trade Commission. However, the United States government is not particularly effective in regulating private businesses in this arena, and the majority public opinion is that private companies should be allowed to conduct business as they see fit to maximize profits regardless of a moral compass.  Cellphones, for example, must have basic location services even if they only make and receive phone calls.  Considering the vast majority of the United States population brings a cellphone with them wherever they go, they are unwittingly being surveilled more so than even those in unfortunate souls living in Cold War East Germany (Mineo 2017).

     Many United States citizens may be surprised to learn that European countries provide more privacy for their citizens from mass corporate surveillance.  Schneier explains that it is common for Americans to have little trust in government, but have more trust in corporations where Europeans are the opposite – trusting their government more than corporations.  The results in more restrictions on government surveillance in America and less in Europe.  Correspondingly, there are more restrictions on corporate surveillance in Europe and less in America.  The lack of restriction on corporations in America is based on the idea that too many laws could impede innovation (Mineo 2017).

     Overall, most people in America feel they have no control over their personal data, so they just accept the monitoring.  In addition to the government accumulation of private data in America, the “Little Brothers” or corporate surveillance like Apple, Verizon, and Facebook have vast amounts of personal information stored on United States citizens with no intention to protect privacy in their unquenched desire to make more money. The American government is tasked with assuring a safe food supply and air travel, but fails to provide protection for citizens from social media and internet corporations.  Only through involvement in the political process can United States citizens expect to change the role of government in protecting privacy from electronic surveillance (Mineo 2017).

Conclusion

     Mass surveillance by the government and corporations has become normalized in the United States and is generally tolerated by its citizens.  In exchange for free services and modern conveniences, citizens in American have accepted a level of privacy lower than that seen in European countries.  Even after revelations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013, little has changed with regard to privacy protections from electronic surveillance by the government and corporations.  Money speaks louder than personal freedom and democratic processes involving free speech – not only to corporations but also to private individuals.  Studies show that the vast majority of people censure themselves when they believe they are being monitored, which negatively impacts a free exchange of ideas so imperative in the preservation of a democratic society.  Only through involvement in the political process can Americans expect to force a change in the role of government in providing privacy protections from corporations and from the government itself.  As long as American citizens tolerate mass surveillance, there should be no expectation of change.

 

References

Abdo, A. (2015, April 26). You May Have ‘Nothing to Hide’ But You Still Have Something to Fear. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/blog/national-security/secrecy/you-may-have-nothing-hide-you-still-have-something-fear

Director of National Intelligence. (2013, June 8). Facts on the Collection of Intelligence Pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/press-releases/press-releases-2013/item/871-facts-on-the-collection-of-intelligence-pursuant-to-section-702-of-the-foreign-intelligence-surveillance-act

Greenwald, G. (2013, July 31). XKeyscore: NSA tool collects ‘nearly everything a user does on the internet.’ Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/31/nsa-top-secret-program-online-data

Mineo, L. (2018, August 30). When it comes to internet privacy, be very afraid, analyst suggests. Retrieved from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/08/when-it-comes-to-internet-privacy-be-very-afraid-analyst-suggests/

Penney, J. W. (2017). Internet surveillance, regulation, and chilling effects online: a comparative case study. Internet Policy Review, 6(2). DOI: 10.14763/2017.2.692

Stoycheff, E. (2016). Under Surveillance: Examining Facebook’s Spiral of Silence Effects in the Wake of NSA Internet Monitoring. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 93(2), 296-311. doi:10.1177/1077699016630255