PRISM Surveillance: The NSA Isn't to Blame For Our Surveillance State, Congress is


A dog can be one of the most tender, child-friendly creatures on the planet. It can also be one of the most vicious, bloodthirsty beasts in the animal kingdom. Where its temperament falls on this spectrum is in large part dictated by its owner. A disciplined hand, a guiding voice, and rigorous training can all contribute to a lastingly stable demeanor.

It seems misguided to place anger over the NSA’s intrusive immersion in our technology at their feet, when it is their very mandate to scrutinize human communication for potential dangers. Their dragnet approach to invading everyone's privacy rightly offends people's sensibilities, but just like a neighbor's wild dog defecating on your lawn, the blame for the NSA's overreach lies with those who oversee them.

And what kind of owners have our congressmen been? On Thursday afternoon, NSA and other intelligence officials briefed the full Senate regarding info-tapping issues related to Google, Facebook, and other companies. 

Only 47 of the Senators showed up.       

It is with this continued, appallingly apathetic behavior that Congress has shown us what kind of overseers we've allowed into our political neighborhood. As approval ratings for our elected officials continue to plummet into record lows, it seems no scandal or disappointment can be shocking enough to jolt voters out of their collective complacency.

Endless campaign finance reform debates, blatant gerrymandering, revolving door lobbyist arrangements, overt corruption; the list goes on to the point of being mind-numbing. But with the largest wealth disparity in our history pooling money in the pockets of a few families and companies, it has become more essential than ever to ensure a truly representative democracy leads this republic — one that serves the interests of all Americans.

The choosing of better leaders — who will act on the right priorities — begins with our own endeavour to focus on the right information. The altruistic or destructive motivations behind Edward Snowden's leaks are irrelevant. So are any voyeuristic tabloid stories concerning his girlfriend. The most important aspects of this story have actually been floating around long before Snowden blew any whistles.

Last year, the Senate voted to let the NSA continue warrantless surveillance until 2017.  In 2011, we learned that the U.S. military developed software to secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda. When Anonymous hacked Booz Allen Hamilton in 2011, they revealed a trove of illegal surveillance, the blackmail of American journalists, and fabricated documents designed to discredit Wikileaks. We've even heard the warning signs of this conspiracy in our cinema for decades.

It becomes clear that the issue of our military's technological capabilities is not the revelatory aspect of this story. Our elected officials' abhorrent inability to oversee it, however, is very relevant. As is their perpetually partisan lack of cooperation, their doling out of uninspired wrist-slapping punishments for corporate crime, and their alarming inability to connect with the majority of American voters.

How much longer can we watch Democrats rest on the laurels of their election victories without actually accomplishing anything? How much longer can we watch Republicans claim to strive for a more efficient government while actively ignoring the financial black hole that is our defense budget? Inflated by their mutual hypocrisy and unproductiveness, congressmen on both sides of the aisle have begun to truly embody the bloated monstrosity of our standstill government.

When I studied WWII history, I always wondered how the Nazis could have come to power in an otherwise democratic country. They disposed of their political rivals with violence, and villainized Jews, immigrants, and other minorities to an entire nation that had previously felt indifference on the subject. Is an economically downtrodden populace (frustrated by their ineffective leaders) all it takes to mistake terrifying ideologies for salvation? Is that why we are seeing a rise of nationalist parties in Greece?

What kind of political voice will Americans turn to if their current disapproval becomes outraged indignation? Will the next wave of politicians be concerned about giving up too much liberty? Or will they manufacture a social scourge to blame our problems on like the Nazis did? Will we, as voters, demand guarantees that our privacy be respected? Or will we idly watch reality TV while honest politicians and investigatory journalists have their emails hacked to the point of being powerless to help society?

People often reference Orwell’s 1984 to describe the state of our all-encompassing surveillance. But what about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which people are so distracted by cheap entertainment they become too uninformed to care about their decaying dystopia? Instead of choosing politicians who parrot chants of "Freedom, Capitalism, and Democracy," we should ensure they have the capacity to actually save those words from losing their meaning. Otherwise, history may very well look back at us in the same manner we judge loyal Soviet-era communists who refused to face the bleak reality around them.

Occupy Wall Street may have failed to manifest into a lasting counter to the Tea Party movement, but it did succeed in bringing certain issues to the forefront of the political debate. On that merit alone, and the passion we see in protesters across the world challenging their oppressors, we should renew our own passion for dissent.

Nothing would make our founding fathers prouder than if we constantly looked for opportunities to petition redresses of grievances, assemble peacefully, engage in acts of civil disobedience, and generally disrupt the smooth governance of our nation. That is a bare minimal echo of the revolutionary spirit which gave birth to our nation — and will attract the truly courageous leaders leaders willing to safeguard it.

Those who presume to steward the safety of our society should be held to the highest possible standards. If they cannot understand emerging technologies, guarantee public safety, and not shred civil liberties in the process, then they have proven themselves unworthy of their office.

Leadership should be reserved for the very best among us, because ideals such as freedom, privacy, and liberty evolve with time — and will be challenged differently within every generation. By perpetually fighting to preserve the virtues we deem worthy, we guarantee they will be handed down to our children, uncorrupted by our cowardice.