The History of Government and NSA Surveillance

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The NSA (National Security Agency) was founded in 1952 “to protect our nation from foreign governments using global monitoring and data collecting” (Britannica). But more recently the NSA has become more popular on the discussion of whether their work to protect our nation from foreign governments interferes with our privacy. Metadata is “information such as your phone number and the receiver's phone number along with how long your call lasted” (Savage). Knowing about this, mass surveillance should be important to every American because for most of the calls you make some information ends up with the NSA such as Metadata. In a New York Times article written by Charlie Savage who has been writing on National Security post 9/11 since 2003 and co-taught a class about National Security at Georgetown University, in his article he explains that “the NSA had collected more than 534 million records of phone calls and text messages in 2017 which is more than three times the amount it was in 2016” (Savage). This means that with every text and call you make, your information not including the content of the message or call is being distributed to the NSA. Alex Joel, a Chief Civil Liberties Officer explains that “the NSA has not changed its legal way it collects data and states that it could have increased due to data companies and the telecommunication industry” (Savage). Today, I will be looking at Government and NSA Surveillance from the Historical Lens and explaining how regulation, people’s choice, and encryption are possible solutions to fixing this problem.

Solution 1 - Regulation

In 1978, Congress passed FISA which stands for Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act. It was Congress’ response to all their hearings about people's privacy rights due to the government trying to investigate threats occurring to our National Security and people feeling that their privacy was being invaded. Especially at the time of the Cold War, FISA was made to protect our nation from foreign spying at a period where Communism was a huge fear in our country. This contributed to FISA stating that “the only circumstances under which an electronic surveillance could lawfully be conducted in the United States for the purpose of collecting foreign intelligence or foreign counterintelligence” (McAdams). In other words, the only way you can possibly spy on someone using electronic surveillance is by having the purpose of collecting valuable information of foreign threats to the United States. More modernly, FISA has become less strict with what they allow and has caused for more problems. An article on The Guardian written by Glenn Greenwald who is an ex-constitutional lawyer stated that “A Yale Law professor Jack Balkin explained in 2009 that The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 gives the president the authority to run surveillance programs similar in effect to the warrantless surveillance program” (Greenwald). The new FISA Act of 2008 primary purpose is “to collect Americans’ international communications” (Greenwald). Basically, Jack Balkin is warning Americans that as long as the government does not directly target a certain person the government can collect large amount of our communication such as emails. One limitation of using FISA as a solution to regulate our government's surveillance is that they have the control to let what they believe is acceptable to survey on.

Solution 2 - Peoples Choice

Citizens have always put their fate into their government for choosing the right choice for the people, but not always has this been successful.” In 1927, the Supreme Court case of Olmstead v United States, Roy Olmstead declared that his Fourth and Fifth Amendments were being violated when his phone was wiretapped by the police without a warrant” (Bill of Rights Institute). He was stating that even though he did what he did, the police couldn’t use the evidence they found because they violated his amendments. Despite this “ the Supreme Court ruled the government could use the evidence thus stating that the Fourth Amendment was only valid to physical searches and seizures” (Bill of Rights Institute). “Later on in 1967, the Supreme Court case of Katz v United States disagreed with the ruling of the Olmstead case and declared warrants to be required when wiretapping a phone” (Bill of Rights Institute). More recently, people have start to stand up for their privacy rights and want to have the choice of where their data goes. In an article from the Christian Science Monitor, Cesar Hidalgo, Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, and Alex Pentland who all specialize in Metadata believe “the public not the government should decide what to do with their own data” (Hidalgo, Montjoye, Pentland). They all believe that “metadata is more powerful then how people perceive it to be and should be given the choice to do what they want with it” (Hidalgo, Montjoye, Pentland). A limitation to this solution is that not everyone cares about their data, they haven’t thoroughly read what their data can do and how these companies use it along with the fact that we don’t currently understand how people would get to choose their own choice for how their data is used. People’s choice relates to the solution of regulation because they both deal with letting the people whose data their collecting choose what they want to do with that data.

Solution 3 - Encryption

Back in 1945 after the end of World War 2, the United States, Britain, and France started a multilateral organization called CoCOM. CoCOM stands for The Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls it was organized to “coordinate the national controls they apply over the export of strategic materials and technology to the communist world” (Forrest). As the years went on CoCOM was later re established as the Wassenaar Arrangement. A limitation of having nations control what technology citizens can use and how they can encrypt things is that no citizen has a right to say what they feel about what the nations are doing. More modernly, things have been changing ever since Edward Snowden the man who leaked NSA files in 2013 came out to speak on the topic. In an article written by John Cassidy who is a graduate from Oxford University and now writes for the New Yorker, he explains that “Edward Snowden appeared at an annual technology conference via Google Hangout he explains that if we find ways to create better encryption methods, that could keep us safe” (Cassidy). Edward Snowden was basically saying that he believed that encryption where only the receiver can see what they’re receiving and nobody will be able to interfere from the outside is our best solution. Even a expert in online security named Soghoian explained that this is possible except the only problem is that it will cost a lot of money (Cassidy). Hearing this come from a former CIA worker makes people wonder if this could actually work then why aren’t companies doing it, the only limitation is that it’s a lot of money. Encryption contradicts with regulation and people’s choice because encryption completely takes out anyone but the receiver out of the picture.


Therefore, after completing my research on Government and NSA Surveillance I recommend that every US citizen should read into what the NSA really is taking from our phones and computers and putting thought into what you can do. Like Edward Snowden said, if companies start to realize how huge of a problem this is for their customers and themselves, they’ll put in the money and help themselves by encrypting our data so no outside source can access it. In order to solve the problem of privacy, big companies such as Google, Facebook, and AT&T need to re-evaluate that this issue is bigger than phone numbers and call logs. Everyone’s privacy whether small or big should be respected and big companies putting in money could contribute to the safety of ordinary people's lives.

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The History of Government and NSA Surveillance. (2019, Dec 10). Retrieved November 30, 2023 , from

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