“Other than the vague threat of an Orwellian dystopia, as a society we don’t really know why surveillance is bad,” writes Washington University Law Professor, Neil Richards [PDF]. Today, the United State Senate reauthorized a controversial Obama-supported surveillance law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 Amendments Act of 2008 (FISA), which permits intelligence agencies to monitor international communications, sometimes without a warrant and little court oversight.
Civil libertarians are up in arms, but in the face of deadly terrorist threats, does government monitoring actually harm people? Richards’ attempts to argue that brazen government spying does, indeed, have real-world harms, including mass self-censorship and blackmail, and supplies moderately compelling evidence that will appeal to those naturally scared of the government.
Without the Senate’s support, FISA’s powers were set to expire at the end of the year. Fierce FISA critic, Senator Ron Wyden (CrunchGov Grade: A), who released a hold he put on the bill in exchange for limited congressional debate, worries that evidence of government overreach means that FISA could lead to more unnecessary spying. The scope of monitoring and the admitted breaches of the 4th Amendment are themselves shrouded in secrecy. Proponents, such as Representative Lamar Smith, (CrunchGov Grade: F) argue that national security concerns are worth the trade-off.
Under the worst-case scenarios, how could spying from democratic governments actually hurt people in a way that would offset the increased risk of terrorism?