Friday, June 7, 2013

Yet More Musings About The Harms Of PRISM

Zack Beauchamp says what I have wanted to say about the NSA and PRISM in a far more clear and concise manner than I could have.
The reaction to the National Security Agency (NSA)’s secret online spying program, PRISM, has been polarized between seething outrage and some variant on “what did you expect?” Some have gone so far as to say this program helps open the door to fascism, while others have downplayed it as in line with the way that we already let corporations get ahold of our personal data.
That second reaction illustrates precisely why this program is so troubling. The more we accept perpetual government and corporate surveillance as the norm, the more we change our actions and behavior to fit that expectation — subtly but inexorably corrupting the liberal ideal that each person should be free to live life as they choose without fear of anyone else interfering with it.
Beauchamp's second paragraph seems so clear and blindingly obvious that I'm angry at myself for not being able to articulate that sentiment.

Beauchamp's point also makes me curious why Dr. Ken Blanchard, South Dakota's resident virtue ethicist, can "side with the Administration on this one." My simple understanding of virtue ethics is that one attempts to act as a virtuous person would act in each situation one confronts. Virtue is a habit and quality that one seeks to develop of one's own volition. A Nafsika Athanassoulis article in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains the point:
Aristotelian virtue is defined in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics as a purposive disposition, lying in a mean and being determined by the right reason. As discussed above, virtue is a settled disposition. It is also a purposive disposition. A virtuous actor chooses virtuous action knowingly and for its own sake. It is not enough to act kindly by accident, unthinkingly, or because everyone else is doing so; you must act kindly because you recognize that this is the right way to behave. Note here that although habituation is a tool for character development it is not equivalent to virtue; virtue requires conscious choice and affirmation.
It's hard to understand how these programs allow individuals to to develop the habit and desire necessary for virtue. If Blanchard ever gets to this spot in the Interwebs' hinterlands, I'd appreciate hearing his view.

Further, Americans have been told that the programs have not been used to track American citizens. Color me skeptical about that claim, so I am also concerned about another result of PRISM. It seems to turn America's premises about justice on their head. At their most basic, these programs seem premised on the idea that someone will eventually do something to cause mayhem and harm; therefore, massive amounts of data must be collected for examination at a later date. It strikes me that this idea leads to a presumption of guilt until proven innocent not a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

Finally, it strikes me as odd that few have questioned the security of the servers housing the data. It was not that long ago that Chinese hackers were a threat to commerce and the Republic itself. It seems prudent to question not only the acquisition of these massive amounts of data but also the ability of any entity to store it safely.

I'm fairly certain the program is legal; I doubt that it's Constitutional, but I have little confidence the Supreme Court will share my doubts. Constitutional qualms aside, the data mining still seems dangerous and imprudent. Given that the news cycle seems to have moved on, it also seems obvious the Patriot Act and the perpetual war on terror have created subservient American citizens.


M Larson said...

I tend to be more utilitarian with this subject. I do think that there are some freedoms that we may need to forfeit for the good of the national security. I think in the case of PRISM, the concern is overblown a bit. I would like to see some clear restrictions in place that limits things and I think those are being shown now.

Kal Lis said...


I am just going to respectfully disagree. I sand by each of my points. Accepting the power of the state to watch us and track us for no reason is more dangerous than anything terrorists will do.

I think these make teh utilitarian case if that's the framework you prefer.

I'll add this one too.