Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course


I See You: The Right to Privacy in the Face of Threat

Image taken from www.pixabay.com and used  under Creative Commons License.

Surveillance camera. Image taken from www.pixabay.com and used under Creative Commons License.

In June 2013, Edward Snowden shocked the world when he revealed the staggering extent of the NSA’s surveillance programs. Not limited to collecting data about enemies abroad, the agency was shown to have been amassing huge quantities of information about foreign allies and even its own citizens. Many security holes in software and encryption are a direct result of the NSA, leaving sections of the internet vulnerable to cyber crime. The agency also aggregated vast amounts of personal data, ranging from movement patterns to call records. Even two years after the initial revelations, US citizens and foreign governments alike remain outraged at the audacity of the spy agency’s actions.

Since 2010, the National Security Agency has been exploiting its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with officials.

The New York Times

Proponents of the NSA claim that the agency’s actions were appropriate for reasons of national security. If the government does not have the ability to invade privacy in this manner, they say, then its ability to combat terrorism will be greatly reduced. Some worry about the chance of a additional terrorist incidents such as 9/11 if the government lacks this “essential” power. Another often-repeated point is the Nothing to Hide argument. This argument states that if an individual has not committed any crimes, they shouldn’t worry about being spied upon. If they have committed crimes, the argument continues, then they don’t deserve the right to privacy anyhow.


Edward Snowden. Image taken from http://upload.wikimedia.org/ and modified under Creative Commons License

Those who deem the NSA’s actions unacceptable refute the claims of proponents. Opponents see the NSA’s “pre-emptive strike” surveillance as a complete and utter invasion of personal privacy, prompting distrust in the United States government and its agencies. They dismiss the Nothing to Hide argument out of hand, arguing that it limits freedom, defies the basic human need for privacy, and even leads to an Orwellian society. Hyperbolically mocking the proponents, they ask: don’t walls also impede the government’s ability to catch terrorists?

The conflict at hand here revolves around one moral issue: is the government morally justified in violating an individual’s right to privacy to whatever extent it deems necessary for reasons of national security?

Understandably, different fields of ethics would have varied responses to this question. In particular, two large theories of ethics – utilitarianism and Kant’s Categorical Imperative – would have vastly contrasting views on the subject.

Utility . . . holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

-John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill’s consequentialist utilitarianism would approach the issue by evaluating the results of the NSA’s actions. Thousands of potential deaths due to terrorist activities, it would evaluate, are far worse then the invasion of the privacy of millions. Viewed as a pain vs. pleasure issue, Mill would say that the potential pain experienced by the family and friends of those killed by terrorist activities would be greater than the mild discomfort of those millions whose privacy is being invaded. Furthermore, many of those victims of privacy invasion may not even be aware of the infractions, causing them no pain whatsoever. Due to this analysis, utilitarianism reasons that the morally correct choice is to invade the privacy of millions of innocent people worldwide (often at no discomfort to them) for the purpose of potentially saving the lives of thousands.

There is therefore only a single categorical imperative, and it is this: Act only on that maxim though which you can at the same time will that is should become a universal law . . .

. . . Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

-Immanuel Kant, The Categorical Imperative

On the other side of the debate, Kant’s categoricalism would approach the issue in a different manner. It would look at the people who ordered the NSA’s surveillance program, and analyze their motives for committing these invasions of privacy. If an action is not born out of duty and goodwill, says Kant, it cannot possibly be moral. Furthermore, these programs use humans as a means rather than an end – another cardinal sin in Kant’s Categorical Imperative. By using and abusing these innocent’s people information, they fail to recognize these individuals as an endpoint rather than as an easy method of collecting data. To conclude, Kant’s Categorical Imperative would reject the morality of the NSA’s actions on the basis of the uncertain moral basis of the actions and the violation of humanity as an end.