Privacy, Transparency, and Accountability in the NSA’s Bulk Metadata Program

In Adam D. Moore (ed.), Privacy, Security, and Accountability: Ethics, Law, and Policy. London, UK: pp. 183-202 (2015)
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Disputes at the intersection of national security, surveillance, civil liberties, and transparency are nothing new, but they have become a particularly prominent part of public discourse in the years since the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001. This is in part due to the dramatic nature of those attacks, in part based on significant legal developments after the attacks (classifying persons as “enemy combatants” outside the scope of traditional Geneva protections, legal memos by White House counsel providing rationale for torture, the USA Patriot Act), and in part because of the rapid development of communications and computing technologies that enable both greater connectivity among people and the greater ability to collect information about those connections. One important way in which these questions intersect is in the controversy surrounding bulk collection of telephone metadata by the U.S. National Security Agency. The bulk metadata program (the “metadata program” or “program”) involved court orders under section 215 of the USA Patriot Act requiring telecommunications companies to provide records about all calls the companies handled and the creation of database that the NSA could search. The program was revealed to the general public in June 2013 as part of the large document leak by Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA. A fair amount has been written about section 215 and the bulk metadata program. Much of the commentary has focused on three discrete issues. First is whether the program is legal; that is, does the program comport with the language of the statute and is it consistent with Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures? Second is whether the program infringes privacy rights; that is, does bulk metadata collection diminish individual privacy in a way that rises to the level that it infringes persons’ rights to privacy? Third is whether the secrecy of the program is inconsistent with democratic accountability. After all, people in the general public only became aware of the metadata program via the Snowden leaks; absent those leaks, there would have not likely been the sort of political backlash and investigation necessary to provide some kind of accountability. In this chapter I argue that we need to look at these not as discrete questions, but as intersecting ones. The metadata program is not simply a legal problem (though it is one); it is not simply a privacy problem (though it is one); and it is not simply a secrecy problem (though it is one). Instead, the importance of the metadata program is the way in which these problems intersect and reinforce one another. Specifically, I will argue that the intersection of the questions undermines the value of rights, and that this is a deeper and more far-reaching moral problem than each of the component questions.
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