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The NSA Report: Liberty and Security in a Changing World
The NSA Report: Liberty and Security in a Changing World
The President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies
Princeton University Press, 2014
288 pp., $17.95

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David Lyon


Big Brother Is Listening to You

For your own good, of course.

Surveillance of those suspected of wrongdoing, or who threaten some legitimate government, or of military targets is an ancient practice. From biblical times, for instance, one sees spies checking out the "promised land," bodyguards seeing that the king is protected, and watchers keeping guard over a city against illicit or violent activity. It even seems to echo the all-seeing eye of God, although as soon as God is invoked as surveillant, biblical attention is directed to the primary motif of God's care for creation and especially for the vulnerable—God notices the sparrow, and how much more the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger.

In modern times, surveillance has become centrally significant as a feature of organizational life, both within government and policing on the one hand, and in the corporate sector, including workplaces, on the other. Back in the 1960s, Jacques Ellul showed presciently that surveillance subtly seeps beyond bounds, monitoring more and more of us. And as surveillance seems to spill over into inappropriate areas of life, checks have also been placed on it, in our day, by regulatory mechanisms, technical devices, and data protection and privacy laws. Such limits are important for open democracy, for everyday liberties, and for living without fear of unknown eyes.

The revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden laid bare some striking features of surveillance today that had not been so clear to many. The NSA is engaged in widespread surveillance, and for many this ramping-up is seen as a necessary response to the attacks of 9/11. But the ways that data are obtained—whether willingly or not—from telephone and internet companies struck a discordant note. Could we as customers trust those companies to keep our data and, crucially, metadata secure? The NSA disclosures show that the very marketplace of modern life is public in ways we never guessed. The internet, where we conduct our business, meet ...

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