In a 1963 opinion piece for The Washington Post, President Truman wrote: “For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government.”
Proponents of such invasive surveillance programs often make the claim that “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.” However, this sort of argument can be used to justify nearly any invasion of privacy.
Should all citizens be forced to wear location trackers so the police can monitor their whereabouts?
Earlier this month, Julian Assange and his team at WikiLeaks released nearly 9,000 documents on tactics employed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This release of classified documents, which Wikileaks claimed as the most in-depth exposure of internal CIA files, was dubbed “Vault 7” and contained information about the agency’s hacking, surveillance, and monitoring capabilities. This revelation came at a time when President Donald Trump was accusing former President Barack Obama of wiretapping his calls before the 2016 election. The new batch of released CIA documents has reignited the hotly contested question of whether invasive surveillance tactics are ever permissible, particularly if they are used against American citizens. Can these intrusions to privacy be justified in the interest of security?
Former President Harry Truman, who signed the National Security Act of 1947 establishing the CIA, had reservations. In fact, at the time of the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, less than 15 years after the CIA was created, Truman expressed misgivings about his role in the creation of the CIA: “I think it was a mistake. And if I’d known what was going to happen, I never would have done it.” And in a 1963 opinion piece for The Washington Post, President Truman wrote: “For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government.”
Now, a half century later, the political and information-gathering landscape has dramatically changed, but the CIA still exists and its power continues to increase. Vault 7 describes the vast hacking arsenal the CIA uses, including surveillance techniques that target smartphones and smart TVs. For example, one of the programs, called Weeping Angel, targets Samsung smart TVs by placing the TV into a fake “off mode” while sending audio recordings taken from the room where the television is to the CIA. Another program, called Fine Dining, consists of a list of 24 decoy applications that the CIA can use to infect manually a computer and collect its data. All of this is done, of course, without the knowledge or consent of the technology’s owner.
Proponents of such invasive surveillance programs often make the claim that “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.” However, this sort of argument can be used to justify nearly any invasion of privacy. Should all citizens be forced to wear location trackers so the police can monitor their whereabouts? Most people would object to this, and rightly so. Similarly, massive information gathering opens up the possibility of information falling into the hands of potentially untrustworthy third parties. The very fact that WikiLeaks was able to obtain such large amounts of data from the CIA is proof that the government is not always secure with its data. Most importantly, however, is the fact that the rationale of prioritizing security over liberty can be used to create a state with nearly limitless power over its citizens.
Therefore, whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden served an indispensable role in society: to make sure that governmental agencies remain at least somewhat transparent to the watch of the public. In rationalizing whether invasive surveillance is ever justified, I turn to Professor Gary Marx of MIT, who suggests that there should be principles adhered to that govern what is permissible surveillance. These include “minimization” (only relevant information should be gathered) and “dignity” (there should be a limit on monitoring personal information).
Furthermore, democracy, by definition, needs an informed citizenry to survive. The average American citizen knows little about the internal processes in the CIA and NSA. While much of that is by design, the American people have a right to know how the government collects its surveillance data. A 2014 political typology survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that 54% of Americans disapprove of the U.S. government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts. 74% of Americans say they do not see a need to sacrifice civil liberties to be safe from terrorism.
The debate between personal liberties and American security has always been greatly nuanced. However, Vault 7 and other document releases should be a cause for concern to the American people. Citizens should trust their government, but that trust should not extend to invasive surveillance tactics that damage an individual’s basic right to privacy. No doubt Harry Truman would be horrified to see what the CIA had become if he were alive today.
Nikhil Kesarla is a student at Cornell University.