Do we really need privacy?

Due to the NSA spying program PRISM [1], we are again discussing the importance of privacy. People who don’t mind its current erosion have one compelling argument on their side: If spying – by whatever means – can prevent just a single terrorist attack then isn’t it worth it? This blog post mentions some of the risks of widespread spying.

A tremendous amount of power

Surveillance data gives people with access to it a tremendous amount of power. Quoting “You commit three felonies a day” by Jason Kottke for kottke.org:
The average professional in this country wakes up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, eats dinner, and then goes to sleep, unaware that he or she has likely committed several federal crimes that day.
Thus, if the state wants to put you in jail, it can.

Too many people have access to the information collected by the NSA

Quoting “If the NSA Trusted Edward Snowden With Our Data, Why Should We Trust the NSA?” by Farhad Manjoo for Slate:
Let’s note what Snowden is not: He isn’t a seasoned FBI or CIA investigator. He isn’t a State Department analyst. He’s not an attorney with a specialty in national security or privacy law.

Instead, he’s the IT guy, and not a very accomplished, experienced one at that. [...] But he was given access way beyond what even a supergeek should have gotten. As he tells the Guardian, the NSA let him see “everything.” He was accorded the NSA’s top security clearance, which allowed him to see and to download the agency’s most sensitive documents. But he didn’t just know about the NSA’s surveillance systems—he says he had the ability to use them. “I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities [sic] to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email,” he says in a video interview with the paper.

In other words: too many people have access to information that allows them to easily blackmail anyone they don’t like.

The state does abuse its power

Two examples illustrate the intelligence community’s attitude towards power.

Refuse the NSA, land in jail

An example of the NSA abusing its power when it doesn’t get what it wants. Quoting “You commit three felonies a day” by Jason Kottke for kottke.org:
We know what happened in the case of QWest before 9/11. They contacted the CEO/Chairman asking to wiretap all the customers. After he consulted with Legal, he refused. As a result, NSA canceled a bunch of unrelated billion dollar contracts that QWest was the top bidder for. And then the DoJ targeted him and prosecuted him and put him in prison for insider trading -- on the theory that he knew of anticipated income from secret programs that QWest was planning for the government, while the public didn't because it was classified and he couldn't legally tell them, and then he bought or sold QWest stock knowing those things.

This CEO's name is Joseph P. Nacchio and TODAY he's still serving a trumped-up 6-year federal prison sentence today for quietly refusing an NSA demand to massively wiretap his customers.

Spies don’t use their power responsibly

Steve Clemons recently reported that two people who probably were intelligence officers made a disturbing joke. Quoting “Alleged US security officials said NSA leaker, journalist should be ‘disappeared’” on RT News:
When asked for his reaction to [the above mentioned joke] that reporter Glenn Greenwald and the 29-year-old leaker himself should be “disappeared,” Snowden told the newspaper: “Someone responding to the story said ‘real spies do not speak like that.’ Well, I am a spy and that is how they talk. Whenever we had a debate in the office on how to handle crimes, they do not defend due process – they defend decisive action. They say it is better to kick someone out of a plane than let these people have a day in court. It is an authoritarian mindset in general.”

Do we have our priorities straight?

Ironically, many state institutions don’t approve of spying and hacking when they are not the ones doing it. Legally, hacking is considered worse than raping. Quoting “Hacker Faces More Jail Time Than The Convicted Steubenville Rapists He Exposed” by Gregory Ferenstein for TechCrunch:
A 26-year-old farm dweller who helped expose the rape of a teenage girl is facing up to 5x more jail time than the high school football members who publicly assaulted the girl.
Similarly, most whistleblowers don’t damage the state, they perform an important service for democracy – ensuring transparency. Which is why the current administration’s extreme prosecution of them is so regrettable.


Much intelligence work is undoubtedly useful. But safeguards should be put in place to protect ordinary citizens. With spying, it comes down to: do you trust the people in power? And even if you do – can you be sure that that will always remain so?

Case in point (quoting ”Survey: Majority Of Americans Think NSA Spying Is More Important Than Privacy“ by Gregory Ferenstein for TechCrunch):

[...] there’s a been a noticeable partisan shift between the Obama and Bush administrations. In 2006, 53 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats supported email monitoring, yet seven years later, it’s the complete reverse (45 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of Democrats support email monitoring).
Recommended reading: “The Value of Privacy” by Bruce Schneier.


  1. Denying PRISM