How should Christians respond to government surveillance?
I’ve never been that person who always brings up political discussions, and controversial subjects, and what not. However (yes, there is a however), I understand that there are a lot of things going on in our world today which simply cannot be ignored. Israel is being bombed and invaded constantly by Palestinians. North Korea makes threats to attack. Russia is in conflict with Ukraine. Big Brother is watching us. Our presidential choices are a mess.
I strongly think the worst thing we can do as Christians is to remain silent about current events. Because silence is, essentially, consent. We need to exercise our freedom of speech as much as we can – while we can.
Thus, this post.
(A disclaimer – remember, I am only a nineteen year old girl who is writing a blog post, merely a shout into the void of the internet, into the sea of words and articles and other posts, about things that are already being discussed. I am no expert. But I have given this subject a lot of thought and research, and have decided where land on the issue of mass surveillance. If you disagree with anything I say, feel free to comment (respectfully please), or email me with questions, and I will answer them the best I can.)
For our senior year project, I wrote my Capstone/Thesis Paper on Mass Surveillance. (A long-winded read, but I hope is worth the read)
The Questionable Morality and Justification of NSA’s Mass Surveillance of U.S. Citizens
The topic of government using mass surveillance of citizens for the sake of national security has been a hot topic in the past recent years. The internet is saturated with articles and debates and videos on this and related issues. Dystopian and apocalyptic movies and stories have become increasingly popular, and have garnered massive appeal from the youth of our generation (Sarner). Perhaps this is all because of how relevant the issue is and how much we are able to relate to it in our modern age. However, more than anything, it most likely reflects the fear that has gripped us as to what could possibly happen to our nation in a few short years – and this goes to say how colossal and paramount this subject has become to our culture. In our modern times, we are surrounded by televisions, newsstands, and social media which proclaim – now more than ever – the political events leading to our probable destruction.
My goal for this paper is to show how the National Security Agency’s (NSA) mass surveillance of American citizens is unjustifiable – even for the sake of national security. I will present four sections: proof that this surveillance of citizens is currently taking place, the opposing positions of the Libertarians and Statists, how mass surveillance is immoral, and what the Scriptures say concerning this issue.
However, I must first begin with both a definition of mass surveillance, and who the NSA is. What is mass surveillance? “Mass surveillance is the distributive close observation of an entire population, or a substantial fraction of the entire population” (USLegal Definition). The National Security Agency is mainly one of the U.S’s operating defense agencies that “[prevents] foreign adversaries from gaining access to sensitive or classified national security information” and “collects, processes, and disseminates intelligence information from foreign signals for intelligence and counterintelligence purposes and to support military operations.” They also “[enable] Network Warfare operations to defeat terrorists and their organizations at home and abroad” (NSA Website).
Mass Surveillance – A Hoax?
There is definitely a lot of false information out there concerning the secret operations of the government. It’s also difficult to find solid evidence that the government’s mass surveillance of citizens is, indeed, occurring – aside from conspiracy theorists’ websites and their creative rumors — because much of the program remains secret. However, there have been a handful of whistleblowers against the NSA over the years.
One more recent and well-known whistleblower is Edward Snowden (Guardian interview). But there have been a few of them scattered through the years – William Benney (Court Declaration), Diane Roark (Wired), Mark Klein (Labor Notes Interview), Thomas Blake (The New Yorker), Perry Fellwock (Gawker), Thomas Tamm (Democracy Now), and Russell Tice (ABC News). The one common thread between them all is their conviction that the Constitution and the right of privacy for citizens had been willfully disregarded.
However, if it seems as if the only evidence of NSA spying are a few scattered whistleblowers throughout the years, there is actually even more obvious and solid proof, and that is, the NSA itself. The National Security Agency released a number of documents in confession of improper surveillance of U.S. citizens. These documents include reported various cases and incidences of: 1) analysts willingly ignoring restrictions on surveillance, 2) analysts conducting unauthorized and illegal surveillance on U.S. organizations with the mistaken belief that they were authorized to do so, and 3) even analysts intentionally ignoring rights of privacy with unauthorized spying to gather data on spouses or love interests (NSA Website).
In a recent interview, CIA Director David Petraeus confessed — even bragged – that the progression and ability of modern technology can be harnessed to spy on citizens through kitchen and household appliances with hidden cameras and microphones.
And how does the NSA gather information from the masses? One example is many telecommunication companies grant them access to large streams of billions and billions of conversations or emails through fiber-optic splitters installed in many of the main telecommunications junction points, so they are able to process all that information for suspicious key words and patterns (Electronic Frontier Foundation).
The Positions of Libertarians vs Statists
There is likely a great number of various standpoints or deviations on this issue, however, I will only cover the most opposed and relevant two stances: the Libertarians and the Statists.
The Statists are those who support “the principle or policy of concentrating extensive economic, political, and related controls in the state at the cost of individual liberty”, and “support or believe in the sovereignty of a state” (Dictionary). Statists can be found in both Liberal and Republican parties. This political stance passionately advocates spying on citizens for the sake of national security. Many Statists would argue, firstly, that public safety and the common good should be the utmost priority of any government or people. Further, government surveillance is the best option for counter-terrorism, as well as prevention of mass shootings and even many deaths. Allowing the government to have access to personal documents, files, and information gives them the power, the ability, and the tools to track down potential threats before they happen. They argue further that citizens should let go of their uneasiness and distrust for the sake of others and for the sake of serving the common good.
A Libertarian is defined as “a person who believes that people should be allowed to do and say what they want without any interference from the government” (Merriam-Webster). Most Libertarians argue that it’s the principle – the fact that the government is overstepping its boundaries to invade personal privacy is wrong and unconstitutional. It doesn’t matter if it is supposedly protecting us from some terrorists when in fact the government is probably the very thing we need protection from. They say that we ought to guard ourselves against a Big Brother which would eventually use that power, ability, and tools to serve their own selfish purposes rather than national security – with no thought or concern for U.S. citizens. In fact, they just might possibly use the information they glean from us to target Christians, Conservatives, or those who simply speak out against the tyranny of their supreme power.
Is the NSA’s Mass Surveillance Morally Justified For the Sake of National Security?
Some Statists even point out that its absurd – what would the government want to do with information about us? After all, the rest of us are innocent, and have done no wrong, and if eavesdropping on millions of innocent peoples’ phone calls prevents another 9/11 (or worse, a nuclear attack) then the intrusions are well worth it. Why should we fuss over something that provides us protection from foreign threats? What does it matter that it goes against the Constitution?
The Constitution is set upon moral, biblical, and thoroughly thought-out principles as to the proper relationship of the government to the people. In fact, surveillance and violations of privacy were part of the reason our forefathers sailed to America to be free to worship the way they pleased and to escape the King’s general search warrants without trial.
Mass surveillance has helped catch and prevent a few terrorists here and there, however, it is giving a foothold to the government so that they would easily be able to use this information in any way they please – including things that are not necessarily related to national security. We know that, as humans, we are flawed, and our natural tendency is to seek out our own interest – so it is with governments. Every government, at some point at least, makes decisions which may or may not benefit the people, but will help to feed and grow itself. With mankind’s tendency to become corrupt under such heavy power, a citizen who gives his rights of privacy to them will not guarantee that he will ever get them back again.
To respond to those who believe that, because they are innocent, there is nothing wrong with handing over their privacy to the government, think again – they not only have access to your public and criminal records, but also your social media accounts, private messages, emails, phone calls, search history, and personal photos and documents. To some this still doesn’t hit a chord, and they will just shrug it off. But think some more: with all of this information compiled together, they can know just about everything about you, your whereabouts, and what you’re doing and thinking. They know your political and religious leanings; they know the names of your kids, and how you discipline them; they know your medical history, what medication you’re on, and for what. This information they gather could be likened to the personal information you would put in a private journal. Now what kinds of things could they do with all this information? They can know your personal habits, strengths, and weaknesses. And they can use all this to target you for political reasons or religious reasons. By giving them this power, essentially, you are giving them the tools to create a totalitarian police state or a sovereign, oppressive, communistic power over the people.
Almost every nation that has adopted the government surveillance propaganda has ended up a police state, or under an oppressive system (Surveillance Monitor 2007). Communism and coercion are inevitable in a society that willingly gives up its rights for national security.
Now, since we know that government mass surveillance is wrong and should be abolished – how else can or should the government respond to terrorist threats? We should take example of two countries: Israel and Switzerland.
As is currently broadcasted on the news, Israel is under constant attack by Palestinians and many terrorists. Recently, gun laws have been lifted in Israel to allow citizens to carry arms out in public places for self-defense. In fact, Israeli ministers have been strongly encouraging civilians – both men and women – to remain armed with a gun in public at all times (and to use as needed) — due to the frequent terrorist knife attacks in 2015. Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan reportedly said any terrorist who chooses to stab someone with a knife should expect to be shot in response, according to the Jewish Press (International Business Times). There have been several instances where a civilian effectively warded off a terrorist and saved several lives in the process. (There are an abundance of examples, however, I will exclude mentioning them, for the sake of brevity.)
Switzerland is a great example of a nation with some of the lowest terrorism percentages in the world due to their armed and educated citizens (Global Terrorism Index 2014). The U.S. ranked 16 times higher from 2000-2006 for terrorist incidences compared to Switzerland (Nation Master). Even Hitler didn’t invade the Swiss due to their reputation of heavy citizen armament (Holbrook).
Therefore, rather than the American government using intense and preposterous spying on citizens to find terrorists, we should arm and educate the citizens to defend themselves and others, as is done in Israel and Switzerland. If getting one’s carrying permit was as common as getting a driver’s license, and if the people were trained to use their weapons well, terrorism would greatly decrease.
What Do the Scriptures Say?
One of the more popular verses in the Bible concerning governmental authority is Romans 13:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.
Many Christians tend to twist this passage to mean that we are called to purposefully ignore the wrongdoings of government authority, and to remain passive rather than taking a strong stand against what is happening in our country. Yet we know God calls us to stand up for the truth above all else.
Of course mass surveillance is not a topic discussed in the Scriptures, but we know the foundational principles of how a Christian should live, as well as the relationship of the government to the people. Therefore, we should firstly define the purpose of government. Romans 13 says government is the authority to punish evil. And we know that from various examples from Scripture, there have been times that the government itself has turned to evil (Matt. 2, Ex. 1, etc.) And we also know of times that people rightfully disobeyed the government (Dan. 3, Acts, 5:40-42, Est. 4, etc.) God’s law supersedes all other earthly authority (Acts 5:29). Therefore, when a government turns to the way of evil, civil disobedience is actually necessary.
Now what does this mean in regard to mass surveillance? What are we supposed to do as Christians? What is our best course of action? Are we called to throw out all technology and flee into the mountains out of paranoia? Of course not. As Christians we should 1) Obey God, first and foremost, 2) Stand up for what is right (no matter the cost), 3) Create awareness, and to 4) Join or support organizations defending our rights.
As Christians, we are called to wake up from our ignorant stupor and remember that we are in a battle between light and darkness.
In conclusion, government mass surveillance cannot be justified for the sake of national security. No matter what propaganda or lies are spun up in support of watching the private lives of citizens, we must remember the values and principles of our founding forefathers.
Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” When it comes down to it, we have to take responsibility for our actions, and for the actions we fail to take. As humans we are always in error – either we say too much, or nothing at all. Then, in doing so, and allowing evil rulers to take the most basic rights we have, we dig our own graveyards, burying ourselves in “what-if’s” and “should-haves”, bemoaning what the world has come to. But we must shift the blame to humanity itself, to good men who stand by and do nothing.
However, even in our darkest hour, there is a spark, not of goodness, but of hope that someday, good men will put aside their fears, their ignorance, and their pride, realize their error and return to the world, bringing justice and goodness with them.*
- Sarner, Lauren, “Dystopian Fiction, and Its Appeal”. NY Daily News, 28 June 2013. Web.
- USLegal, Mass Surveillance Law & Legal Definition. Web.
- National Security Agency, “About NSA”, NSA.gov. Web.
- Snowden, Edward. Interview by Ross Anderson. TheGuardian.com. Guardian News, 17 July 2014. Web.
- Binney, William. “Declaration”, pdf. United States District Court, 28 Sept. 2012. Web.
- Kravets, David. “Whistleblower…Sues NSA”. Wired.com, 1 Aug 2012. Web.
- Klein, Mark. Interview by Labor Notes. Truth-Out.org, 9 July 2013. Web.
- Mayer, Jane. “The Secret Sharer”. The New Yorker. 23 May 2011. Web.
- Tamm, Thomas. Interview by New York Times. Democracy Now. 28 April 2011. Web.
- 9/11 Memorial. “FAQ about 9/11”. 911Memorial.org. Web.
- “Hearings before the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities, Volume V”. AARC, Assassination Archives & Research Center. 29 October 1975. Web.
- “Remarks by Director David H. Petraeus at In-Q-Tel CEO Summit”. CIA News & Information. CIA.gov. 1 March 2012. Web.
- Author Unknown, “How the NSA’s Domestic Spying System Works”, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Date Unknown. Web.
- “statism”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 17 Apr. 2016. Web.
- “Libertarian.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. 18 Apr. 2016. Web.
- “Surveillance Monitor 2007 – International Country Rankings.” Privacy International. 28 December 2007. Web.
- Kaplan, Michael. “Israeli Civilians to Take Up Arms?” International Business Times. 8 October 2015. Web.
- “Israeli Citizen Uses Gun to Stop Terrorist Attack” (video). Bearing Arms, Saving Liberty and Lives. 13 October 2015. Web.
- Zino, Aviram. “‘I Shot Terrorist in Head’”. Israel News. 6 March 2008. Web.
- Global Terrorism Index 2014 (pdf). Institute for Economics & Peace. Web.
- “Switzerland and United States Compared: Terrorism Stats”. NationMaster. 2000-2006. Web.
- Holbrook, Stephan P. “Why An Armed Citizenry?” Web.
- Rudmin, Floyd. “Why Does the NSA Engage in Mass Surveillance…When It’s Statistically Impossible For Such Spying to Detect Terrorists?” Counterpunch.org, 24 May 2006.Web.
- Burke, Edmund. Reflections On the Revolution in France. November 1790.