The Ethics of the NSA Mass-Surveillance Program
One of the most explosive scandals of the 21st century was involved the National Security Agency (NSA), and the revelations that the agency had set up a robust, warrantless mass surveillance program in the years after the 9/11 attacks. Designed to pick up bits of intelligence that could be used in order to thwart future 9/11 attacks, critics of the program argued that not only was it unconstitutional given the lack of warrants obtained prior to engaging in the program, but that it was ineffective at stopping any kind of real terrorism. Supporters pushed ...view middle of the document...
Similarly, the data splitters could gain access to phone calls and phone numbers of millions of unsuspecting Americans. This data was subsequently analyzed using the Naurus Semantic Traffic Analyzer, which essentially key word searched metadata in order to find terrorist related patterns and topics which could then be used as evidence to focus on individuals more closely (Dunn, 2015). This data gathering and analysis was conducted with no oversight, with no warrants provided.
A first ethical theory that is pertinent to this case is utilitarianism. This ethical perspective argues that the ethical nature of a decision is based on the ultimate outcome associated with the choices made, rather than the choices themselves (Shaw, 2016). In essence, utilitarianism can be summed up by the phrase “the ends justify the means”. Proponents of this theory argue that if an action is taken that appears unethical in the process, this does not necessarily mean that the actions are unethical; it can only be judged based on the outcome. A simple example of utilitarianism is seen in harvesting an organ from a criminal in order to save a person who then goes on to cure cancer. On the surface, stealing an organ from anyone would appear unethical, but in this case the ultimate outcome saves millions, thus making the action ethical.
Utilitarianism is the ethical theory that tends to be preferred by proponents of the NSA’s Terrorist Surveillance Program. The belief is that if the surveillance program is able to stop a terrorist attack before it occurs, it will save lives. As such, the outcome of the surveillance program is ethical, even though the process of mass surveillance tramples on the Constitution of the United States, and the concept that the government needs to seek a warrant prior to beginning to conduct surveillance on an American citizen. This is a sacred duty that the American government has to its citizens, something that is enshrined in the Fourth Amendment which bars the government from engaging in illegal searches and seizures in pursuit of a criminal investigation (Dunn, 2015). A believer in utilitarianism would argue that the lives of American citizens are more important than adhering to a legal principle which demands a specific process be followed. Saving lives is seen as the ethical choice, superior to following the Constitution.
Applying Kantian Ethics
Traditionally, the ethical theory that is the diametric opposite of utilitarianism is Kantian ethics. Developed by Emmanuel Kant, this ethical theory holds that ethical rightness or wrongness is not determined by the outcome of actions, but by the ability of the decision maker to adhere to their duty (Shaw, 2016). The foundation of this theory is that it is virtually impossible to control the ultimate outcome of events, and a person should always be in control of whether or not they are making ethical choices. In this way, the theory holds that a person can always...