There are two very bad arguments and one rather illiterate confusion making the rounds in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal. I’ll consider each of them briefly.
First, we have the ‘it was legal’ argument: the surveillance was sanctioned by the Patriot Act, approved by FISA courts, and Congress was in the loop etc. Now, the elementary distinction between legality and morality, between what the law permits and proscribes and what we might consider the right thing to do is just that: elementary. The undergraduates in my Philosophy of Law classes don’t need to be introduced to the distinction between natural law and positive law or to the assigned readings which inquire into our supposed obligations to the law to understand and know this difference. Their lived lives have given them ample proof of this gap as have the most basic history lessons. (Slavery is everyone’s favorite example but many more can be found rather easily.) Indeed, why would we ever have impassioned debates about ‘bad laws’ that need to be revised if the ‘it’s legal’ argument was such a clincher?
Furthermore, the folks complaining about the NSA surveillance are not just complaining about the legality of this eavesdropping and surveillance: they are suggesting the application of some laws is an onerous imposition on them, one that grants the government too much power. They are suggesting this is a moment when the laws of the land require revisitation. This is especially true of the obnoxious Patriot Act. (In another context, consider the draconian Digital Millenium Copyright Act.) Or consider that FISA courts routinely approve all requests made to them, and that the NSA has seven days in which to mine data before it applies for a warrant. All of this is legal. Is it problematic? We could talk about it so long as we aren’t shut up by the ‘its legal’ argument.
Second, we have the vampire ‘if you have nothing to hide, then what do you have to worry about’ argument – it simply refuses to die. No matter how many times it is explained that privacy is not about the hiding of secrets but about the creation of a space within which a certain kind of human flourishing can take place, this hoary nonsequitur is dragged out and flogged for all it is worth. But let me try real quick: we need privacy because without it, very basic forms of life would not be possible. An important example of this is the personal relationship. For these to be built, maintained and enriched, privacy is required. We do not generate and sustain intimacy–emotional and sexual–under observation and analysis; we do so far away from the madding crowd. I am not doing anything illegal or secretive in the maintenance of my personal relationships but I would still like their details to be private. Hopefully, that’s clear. (Who am I kidding?)
Lastly, there is a dangerous conflation between paper records and electronic records. For instance, David Simon, the latest to join the ‘relax, its legal and being done to protect us’ brigade, runs an analogy with the Baltimore wiretaps carried out by the local police and concludes:
Here, too, the Verizon data corresponds to the sheets and sheets of printouts of calls from the Baltimore pay phones, obtainable with a court order and without any demonstration of probable cause against any specific individual.
Except that it doesn’t. Those ‘sheets and sheets’ do not correspond to the billions of digital records obtained from Verizon, which can be stored indefinitely and subjected to data analysis in a way that the hard-copy data cannot.
These arguments will be made again and again in this context; might as well get some brief refutations out there.