The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 did more than awaken our nation to the reality of our contemporary national security system; it called forth change within our government to reform the existing system that was incapable of predicting, preventing or evading the disaster. The horror and disbelief that plagued the country after the attack fueled the establishment of the metadata collection through collaborative efforts from U.S. communications providers by the National Security Agency (NSA). The existence of this program was not made public until 2013 when Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, exposed the NSA’s metadata collections, arousing national concern for the value of American privacy in the modern age. After Snowden’s actions, many lawsuits were filed claiming the metadata collections were a violation of First and Fourth Amendment rights. Though the collection was never deemed unconstitutional, limitations much like the USA Freedom Act and the Patriot Act were established to limit the scope of government intrusion into the personal lives of citizens.
There has been a great deal of controversy regarding the extent to which the government may intrude into the private lives of Americans. The trade-off between public safety and personal privacy was something no American was either informed about or gave consent to. In a democracy where citizens are given the right to participate in policy debates regarding the decisions that affect them, the NSA does not seem to adhere to these principles. While the limitations on the collections themselves have significantly barred entrance into the data collected by communications providers, our privacy can still be infringed upon given the approval of a court judge. Furthermore, these privacy and civil liberties protections were construed as a result of severe public pressures manifesting within the courts, not the inherent contradiction within the First and Fourth Amendments.
A recent comment by a congressional aid suggested that the NSA’s metadata collection efforts have been halted for the past six months. Though this seems to be forward progress in regard to the protection of American privacy, there is no assurance that the mention of the NSA’s suspension of the program accurately reports on their actions. Analogous to their past methods of public dissemination of information, the NSA is infamous for its lack of transparency in broadcasting their initiatives. There is no official verification of the claims made and thus no security that the deliberate divide between our public and private lives will be respected by the NSA’s future demands. Though the intention behind NSA’s initiative has been well-placed to address the concern for national safety, it has not always conformed to the democratic ideals upon which our government was founded.
The seemingly progressive development towards reclaiming American privacy after 9/11 is compromised simply because there is no official boundary that permanently prohibits the NSA from returning to their metadata collections with substantial evidence of a national security concern. Privacy is and will continue to be at risk until an official regulation is established barring the continuation of collections. However, the approval of a regulation of this sort does not seem likely. If the initially severe public backlash from the Snowden reveal was not capable of delivering upon the demand for shutdown of metadata collections within the courts, then what evidence is there to buttress and propel the implementation of a ban years later?
Regardless of what claims are circulating the media currently, there is no sufficient motive to believe that the future of American privacy has been in any way altered by these recent statements. Past metadata collections were not authorized by the public whose information was being monitored without either advisory or request for consent. Trends from past confrontations with government leaks offer us no solace knowing that, going forward, transparency with the metadata collections will not be prioritized. As the technology available to us grows at an exponential rate, it becomes more apparent that the laws enabling these collections will feed off of increased data availability made possible by these advancements. Rather than look to the NSA for an official termination of the metadata collection program, American citizens can look to the tech and communications industries to question just how much information and consequently power they are willing to resign, in exchange for their security – an agreement upon which they entered unknowingly as they conform to the structure of modern society’s social and technological habits.