The revelations about the once secret Prism program of the National Security Agency
have revitalized the old debates about liberty versus security and the individual versus the state. Obviously enough, there are many legal and ethical issues here.
On the face of it, Prism was quite legal-at least in the United States. That is, the program went through all of the legally established procedures for such a program. It remains, however, to see if it is actually constitutional. While questions of legality and constitutionality are interesting, I’ll focus on some of the ethical concerns.
Not surprisingly, the main moral defense of Prism and other programs is based in utilitarianism: any (alleged) wrongs done by intruding into privacy are morally offset by the greater good done by increasing security. The Obama administration has made vague claims that the program has prevented attacks and there is the claim that it will prevent attacks in the future. However, as I have noted before, these claims are coming from the administration who hid the program behind lies. These past deceits and the fact that they are prejudiced clearly makes the administration a dubious source for claims about the efficacy of Prism. However, I do agree that Prism can potentially be morally justified on these grounds and this would be contingent on it doing more good than harm.
The alleged good of such a program can be assessed in terms of the attacks prevented and estimates of the damage that would have been done if such attacks had succeeded. Naturally, the importance of Prism is such prevention must also be considered. After all, if other means would have prevented the attack anyways, then Prism’s credit should be adjusted appropriately.
There are various ways to argue that Prism and similar programs are wrong. One option is to use the same method as can be used to defend it, namely an assessment of the consequences of the program. In order to show that the program is wrong, what would be needed would be reasons to believe that the harms inflicted by the program exceed the benefits. As noted above, the alleged benefits involve increased security. However, the only evidence I have for the effectiveness of the program is the claims made by the people who are endeavoring to defend it. In regards to the harms done, there seem to be a variety of actual and potential harms.
I know that my view that programs like Prism are wrong stems from purely emotional causes. First, I was quite the WWII buff as a kid and I was taught that only organizations like the Gestapo engaged in such broad spying on the citizens of the state. Second, I grew up during the Cold War and well remember being told that the communist countries were bad because they spied on the citizens, something we would not do in the West. That sort of thing was for the secret police of dictatorships, not democratic states. These are, of course, naive views and based in emotions rather than logic. However, there seems to something to the notion that a difference between good guys and bad guys does involve the willingness to gather intelligence about citizens.
One harm is that the secrecy and nature of the program seems to have increased the distrust of the citizens for the United States government. It has also damaged the United State’s image around the world. Of course, this sort of damage can be considered relatively minor and it can be claimed that the fickle focus of public attention will shift, especially if some celebrity scandal or drama catches the public eye.
Another category of harms arises from the invasion of privacy itself. These harms could include psychological harms regarding the violation of privacy and fears about what the state might do with the information. As was evident in the debate over gun control, people can be quite agitated and dismayed by even the rumor that the state might track firearm purchases. While the Prism program does not (directly) track guns (as far as we know) it certainly gathers a vast amount of information about people.
A third category of harms involves the potential harms. One obvious worry is that even if the information is being used for only legitimate purposes now, there is the possibility that the information could be misused in the future. Or is being misused now. Some people were quite upset by the IRS asking certain groups for more information and with the Department of Justice gathering information about reporters. Obviously, whatever harms occurred in those cases would be vastly multiplied. After all, Prism is getting into everyone’s business.
There are, of course, other harms that can be considered.
A second option is to go with a rights based approach to the matter. If there is a moral right to privacy, then Prism would certainly seem to intrude on that right (if not violate it). Naturally, rights can be limited on moral grounds. The usual example is, of course, that the freedom of speech does not allow anyone to say anything at anytime-the right is limited by concerns about harms. Likewise for the right to privacy (if there is such a right).
The obvious challenge with an appeal to a right is to argue that there is such a right. In the case of legal rights, this is easy enough-one can just point to the relevant laws that specify the legal rights. When it comes to moral rights, it is a bit trickier. Classic rights theorists like John Locke argued for rights to life, liberty and property. A case can be made that certain privacy rights fall under the right to property. For example, it can be contended that my communications belong to me and if the state intercepts and stores them, the state is stealing my property. A case can also be made to put certain privacy rights under the right to liberty. For example, I should have the liberty of communication without the state restricting it by creating the fear that my communications can be intercepted and copied without the justification of legitimate suspicion of wrongdoing on my part.
In any case, it would be interesting to see a full development of privacy rights or at least a clear presentation of what is lost when privacy is intruded upon by programs like prism.