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Thursday, June 6, 2013

The U.S. Government Spying on Americans: Is It Ethical?

In early June, 2013, Americans learned of the U.S. Government’s domestic surveillance program, under which the Verizon Business Network Services subsidiary had been turning over call logs “on an ongoing daily basis” to the National Security Agency[1] The order, signed by a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in April of that year, “is lawful,” U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein contended[2]The program analyzes time and number logs that do not include the calls’ content. According to U.S. Senator Chambliss, “All of these numbers are basically ferreted out by a computer, but if there’s a number that matches a [suspicious] number that has been dialed . . . , then that may be flagged. And they may or may not seek a court order to go further on that particular instance. But that’s the only time that this information is ever used in any kind of substantive way.”[3] Harry Reid, Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate, added that the phone-data program had “worked to prevent” terrorist attacks.[4] Does it make any difference that the program had helped stop a domestic attack?
 
Shortly after The Guardian broke the story on Verizon’s subsidiary serving corporate customers, The Wall Street Journal reported that “the initiative also encompasses phone-call data” from AT&T and Sprint, as well as from Verizon itself (i.e., beyond its business subsidiary).[5] Does this revelation make any difference ethically?
 
Not surprisingly, privacy advocates were alarmed at the sheer scope of the program. Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies, a civil liberties advocacy group, said that “absent some explanation I haven’t thought of, this looks like the largest assault on privacy since the N.S.A. wiretapped Americans in clear violation of the law” under the Bush administration.[6] Her statement raises the question of whether the fact that the Obama administration had confined itself to court orders makes the program ethical.
 
Whereas the content of the phone conversations, including the parties’ names, are reportedly not included in the trove of data turned over to the government, internet companies have been providing the contents of emails, online chats, Facebook accounts, Skype video calls, and web searches to the government as per court orders (i.e., not through direct access).[7] Does the inclusion of content in this program make any difference, ethically speaking? Applying a few ethical theories may get us closer to some answers on this and the other questions above. This is not to say that a definitive answer exists; in addition to there being several ethical theories, ethicists do not all include identical factors or weigh them consistently. Even so, thinking the issue over through a number of different theories can contribute to a person’s judgment more generally. With this is mind, I provide an analysis here.





1. Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt, “U.S. Is Secretly Collecting Records of Verizon Calls,” The New York Times, June 5, 2013.
2. Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt, “U.S. Maintains Vast Database of Phone Calls, Lawmakers Say,” The New York Times, June 5, 2013.
3. Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt, “U.S. Maintains Vast Database of Phone Calls, Lawmakers Say,” The New York Times, June 5, 2013.
4. Siobhan Gorman, Evan Perez, and Janet Hook, “U.S. Collects Vast Data Trove,” The Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2013.
5. Siobhan Gorman, Evan Perez, and Janet Hook, “U.S. Collects Vast Data Trove,” The Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2013.
6. Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt, “U.S. Is Secretly Collecting Records of Verizon Calls,” The New York Times, June 5, 2013.
7. Siobhan Gorman, Evan Perez, and Janet Hook, “U.S. Collects Vast Data Trove,” The Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2013.