The Modern Discussion Around Surveillance: A Comprehensive View of Both Sides

Since the groundbreaking leaks by Edward Snowden regarding the NSA surveillance practices a nationwide discussion has surfaced regarding the topic of government surveillance, some consider it an egregious breach of citizens privacy while others view it as a necessary evil for the comfort of safety. The justifications for both sides contain examples of logical and pathetic arguments containing examples of the positive and negative effects of government surveillance and the importance of understanding both sides of the issue cannot be overstated. There is not much of a dichotomy to be made in regard to which side of the argument prefers which style of argumentation, regardless of whether the arguments are fallacious or not there is no imbalance of pathos or logos in their arguments. On the topic of the issue itself it remains a pressing concern even five years later as the current administration condemns the previous of illegally surveilling their campaign, additionally the U.S government’s house of representatives recently voted to not change the existing laws that allow the government to collect Americans personal information, proving that the issue is indeed real and present in our lives. As previously mentioned it is important to understand both sides of the argument, this paper will begin with a summarization of the argument for government surveillance and then move on to an argument against government surveillance.

The argument in favor surveillance is focused on the premise that surveillance provides us with security, to understand why one must understand where contemporary government surveillance began and why it began. After the terrorist attacks of 2001 President Bush signed the “Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” or Patriot Act in 2001, this law which included the FISA program allowed the government to surveil and monitor foreign nationals suspected of participating in terrorist related activities to prevent any large scale terrorists attack from ever happening on American soil again. After the 2013 leaks, the patriot act was defended by conservatives claiming that it was integral to the defense of the nation, examples include Marco Rubio stating that “By and large, I’m supportive of the NSA programs and for extending [them], I think they are important for the security of our country.” Additionally, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie both have strong support for the Patriot Act, they claim that one of the only things the Obama Administration did right was to not interfere with the Bush era surveillance programs because Obama knew that they were effective in stopping terrorist’s plots.[1] Regardless of what politicians say the NSA director himself, Keith Alexander stated in 2013 that since the Patriot Act’s implementation in 2001 the NSA had prevented approximately fifty terror plots, ten of which would have been enacted on U.S soil.[2] This gives the impression that government mass surveillance is beneficial to a country and its interests, however, this is not the case only in a certain set of circumstances that are presently nonexistent could a program like this be effective.


If we lived in a country that faced threats within its own borders the use of government surveillance on the populace would make sense, however, the majority of dangers that threaten the U.S are overseas. Additionally, this type of surveillance might be useful if we let foreigners simply walk in and wander the country, the only problem is that this is not the reality of the situation, foreigners have to go through rigorous processes to come into this country which means that the odds of finding a foreign terrorist amongst the American population are very low.
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The benefits that are expressed by those in favor of government surveillance are either nonexistent or are outweighed by the costs. First, it’s important to address why the notion of surveillance providing security is an example of a false analogy. While the Director of the NSA claims that the surveillance practices they employ have been instrumental in the prevention of terror plots the reality of the situation shows that this is not the case. In 2013 senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall both of whom served on the Senate’s intelligence committee claimed that the majority of the terror plots that the NSA director said had been caught through the use of surveillance had actually been caught through the use of traditional law enforcement tactics.[3] Additionally, a report by the New America Foundation showed that there was minimal NSA surveillance of known terrorists during investigations, also American telephone data was used to initiate only 1.8 percent of investigations, in fact, total NSA surveillance was used for only 7.5 percent of investigations.[4] Now that is has been demonstrated that the “benefits” of surveillance are anything but, it’s important to discuss the costs of surveillance, primarily the psychological costs on the populace. After the leaks, many were quick to compare the U.S government to an authoritarian regime without realizes the real life parallels. However, Jillian York of Aljazeera was quick to compare the actions of the U.S government to the former Soviet Union. She provided a German study in her article “The chilling effects of surveillance” that showed that citizens who lived under Soviet surveillance exhibited self-conscious and fearful behavior.[5] She also gives cases of Palestinian activists and Muslim communities being surveilled more than other groups in America, this is detrimental because this teaches minority population that their own government doesn’t trust them. There are other negative effects, but they are interpreted through a more philosophical point of view, Elias Aboujaoude of Stanford University and Ian Brown of the Oxford say that unconsented digital surveillance by the government takes away our psychological autonomy and the only semblance of control we may have over ourselves.[6] Brown also believes that there are social ramifications of such surveillance as well, mainly in the form of reduced trust in government, increased conformity, and the lost ability to make first impressions in job interviews. Unfortunately, the government is not the only problem, it’s clear today that with the use of social media we create our own digital record that can be observed and by anyone, whether friend or foe. This is considered just an equal a problem as unconsented government surveillance, Laura Brandimarte of Carnegie Mellon University conducted a study about people’s willingness to disclose information about themselves.[7] Her findings revealed that when people are given more control over how the release their information they are more willing to do it, the only problem though is that this is just as susceptible to surveillance if not easier than other types of information. Regardless one can see that the benefits of government surveillance are outweighed by its costs, those who argue for surveillance would be wise to realize this because it would ultimately help them.
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If the Government did not invest in unconsented surveillance programs they could focus their efforts on traditional law enforcement methods which have been proven to be more effective. Anyone who believes that the security of the populace is important should adopt this over surveillance because as it had already mentioned it is more effective, but more importantly, it does not have any of the costs that come with unconsented surveillance. The populace would be more trustworthy of their own government, not just for the majority of Americans but also for the minorities that are over surveilled who already are fearful of the government. Additionally, the overall health of the population could be saved because as already shown it could have been seriously damaged if nothing is done to stop current surveillance. As it can be seen government surveillance provides no significant boons but does, in fact, provide significantly negative effects on the American people.
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As Jim I would argue that the unconsented surveillance of the American people is unacceptable, my argument style would be the same as the one I have already presented, the reason for this is because As Jim I would recognize the benefit of using multiple forms of data and testimonies from all to show that the majority consensus agrees that the cost of government surveillance outweigh its benefits. The reason why I would argue this is because I would have personally had to undergo surveillance in the past when Michael was the manager of the branch. All in all, I would want my life to remain personal.

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[1] Tanner, Michael. “Republicans and the Patriot Act.” National Review, National Review, 6 May 2015, http://www.nationalreview.com/2015/05/republicans-nsa-spying-michael-tanner/.
[2] Nelson, Steven. “NSA Director: Surveillance Stopped 50 Terror Plots.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 18 June 2013, http://www.usnews.com/news/newsgram/articles/2013/06/18/nsa-director-surveillance-stopped-50-terror-plots.
[3] Ackerman, Spencer. “NSA Revelations of Privacy Breaches ‘the Tip of the Iceberg’ – Senate Duo.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 16 Aug. 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/16/nsa-revelations-privacy-breaches-udall-wyden.
[4] Scuiletti, Justin. “NSA Surveillance Doesn’t Stop Terrorism, Report Claims.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 14 Jan. 2014, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/nsa-surveillance-doesnt-stop-terrorism-report-claims.
[5] York, Jillian C. “The Chilling Effects of Surveillance.” Israeli–Palestinian Conflict | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 25 June 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/06/201362574347243214.html.
[6] Golbeck, Jennifer. “All Eyes On You.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 2 Sept. 2014, http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201409/all-eyes-you
[7] Golbeck, Jennifer. “All Eyes On You.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 2 Sept. 2014, http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201409/all-eyes-you

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