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The NSA phone surveillance program was illegal and expensive: And it did not stop a single terrorist attack.

Mass surveillance costs millions of Dollars. Yet, it does not improve security.

2020-10-02
Data from the USA and Europe show that mass surveillance does not help to stop terrorist attacks. Yet, the authorities continue to rely on surveillance technology like facial recognition and location tracking. Instead we must focus on our human rights and protect what is important to keep the power with the people: Our right to privacy and freedom of speech.

NSA phone surveillance

The NSA phone surveillance program has been in place as part of PRISM from 2008 to 2019 in the USA. It "specifically authorizes intelligence agencies to monitor the phone, email, and other communications of U.S. citizens for up to a week without obtaining a warrant" when one of the parties is outside the U.S.

The NSA phone surveillance program to date has cost American tax payers over $100 Million, according to the New York Times. Yet, it did not prevent one single terrorist attack.

The program ceased to exist end of 2019 and is no longer in place. Warrantless surveillance of citizens is unconstitutional - in the USA, in Germany as well as in most democratic countries.

Warrantless surveillance of citizens

Nevertheless, PRISM was in place more than a decade, and during this time American citizens were monitored by the secret services without their knowledge. The NSA argued that it needed this kind of information to stop terrorist attacks and keep American people safe.

However, a judge ruled beginning of September 2020 that not [one single terrorist attack had been stopped with the help of the NSA's phone surveillance program. The ruling was about the one and only case that a study by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board found where the NSA produced successful evidence against terrorists based on phone surveillance.

The ruling concluded that the evidence produced from the (illegal) phone surveillance was not necessary to convict the criminal and did not bring any further information forward than what was already known to the authorities.

Mass surveillance not necessary to fight crime

A similar investigation of terrorist attacks in Europe came to the same conclusion: Between 2014 and 2017, 13 Islamist terrorist attacks took place in Europe after which 24 offenders were convicted. All 24 of them - one hundred per cent - were already known to the authorities prior to the attack and had been classified as violent.

The conclusion from this investigation is that we do not need more surveillance to achieve better security. What we do need is better trained and better equipped police officers so that they can identify potential threats faster.

While investing in mass surveillance tools seems a lot easier, all data shows that no one benefits if everyone is monitored.

End mass surveillance

What comes clear from the examples in the USA and in Europe is that we must end mass surveillance. It is neither an adequate tool to fight - let alone predict - crime, nor is it possible to bring it in-line with the constitution.

Instead of calling for more surveillance, politicians should focus on protecting citizens' human rights, like our right to privacy and our right to freedom of speech.

These human rights are severely damaged when warrantless mass surveillance is in place. In its worst form - and with the help of facial recognition and location tracking - it might lead to a society no longer free to discuss opinions openly and without fear.

As new and better surveillance technologies arise, it becomes more and more important that we uphold our democratic values and make sure that our human rights are respected, also, and particularly, by the authorities. For this, we also need strong encryption without backdoors.

In the end, it all comes down to a simple choice: Do we want to give all power to the authorities, or do we want that all power remains with the people?

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