Ethics Awareness Week ensues heated panel discussion of NSA

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A panel of professionals met last Tuesday to discuss NSA ethics, the new NSA Bluffdale facility, and the diminishing Fourth Amendment.

The panel consisted of David Heldenbrand, Pete Ashdown, Matthew Duffin, and Wayne McCormack.

Heldenbrand, a UVU professor of computer science, led the panel with a brief introduction on the current affairs of the NSA. He believes the National Security Agency is the largest intelligence organization in the United States, with an annual budget estimated around $6 billion.

The NSA has been subject to criticism due to the information leaked by Edward Snowden concerning top-secret government surveillance programs. This information sparked a nationwide debate on the ethics of one agency that has the power to monitor all internet activity.

“The NSA programs are unique in technical sophistication and in the way they’re regulated. The original NSA charters prohibited the agency from monitoring communications of U.S. persons on American soil,” Heldenbrand said. “In contrast, the NSA now captures information at a wholesale level.”

After the Nixon scandal, the government created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 that defined the limitations and procedures of electronic surveillance. The act also introduced a method of requesting warrants that would be regulated by the newly established FISA court.

“The NSA operated under FISA regulations for several decades, but later began to chafe under the restrictions as the volume of communications and pressure to monitor terrorism activities increased,” Heldenbrand said. “As a result, FISA has been amended extensively, with the most recent amendment giving prosecution immunity to telecommunications carriers wiretapping U.S. persons on behalf of the NSA without a warrant.”

Heldenbrand estimates that the NSA intercepts nearly two billion pieces of data on a daily basis and will eventually direct the storage of that information to the new NSA data center in Bluffdale, Utah. The data center is estimated to have cost $1.5 billion, but Pete Ashdown believes that the center will not be worth the cost.


“In the last 10 years, our country has spent over $8 trillion because we’re looking for safety. The previous estimate was only the construction cost of the data center; I believe the monthly operational cost will surely be in the hundreds of millions,” Ashdown said. “Although located in a desert, the center will use 1.5 million gallons of water a day. How is this ethical?”

Ashdown is the founder of XMission, one of the few remaining independent internet service providers in Utah. He has faced ethical issues regarding his internet service company over his concern of having his client’s information being monitored without probable cause.

“Even if you’re a law-abiding citizen, you should care about the power we are granting the government to do this. Even before the internet there have been abuses of power for political, individual, or commercial gain. If we surrender the rights given to us by the fourth amendment, then we have entrusted our government with a power that can and has been abused,” Ashdown said.

Ashdown addressed the fact that companies such as Facebook, Google, and Apple are the position to share necessary information to the public. Although these companies have formally denied the allegation that they have allowed the NSA access to their servers, Ashdown said this does not mean they have denied the NSA access to their network.

“I have received a gag order from the NSA that issued a warrant that allowed them to monitor one of my clients for nine months. Although the gag order instills fear by claiming you remain silent and obey- I’m here talking about it. I think we need to see a similar act of civil disobedience from the major companies that complain they can’t talk about it because they’ve been bound by a similar gag order,” Ashdown said.

Matthew Duffin, an assistant professor of legal studies in the criminal justice program, discussed the reasons why he no longer believes the NSA is acting within ethical boundaries. He said the efficiency of traditional investigative techniques is greater than the surveillance methods used by the NSA. He was also accused of “trivializing” 9/11 by an audience member due to Duffin’s statement on sacrificing privacy to fight terrorism.

“The number of people who were killed on 9/11 are not that many compared to the number of deaths that go on around us every day, including the deaths of soldiers in Iraq. Maybe we ought to be looking at who is the real enemy here, and who is trying to instill fear in us. The people shouldn’t fear the government, the government should fear the people,” Duffin said.

Wayne McCormack, a professor of law at the University of Utah, closed the discussion with his opinion that in order for a government to be successful, it must be transparent. He stated that foreign companies are withdrawing from the U.S. because they are fearful that they will be subject to monitoring.

“Our country is a free and open society, but the fact is that it makes us vulnerable to attack. We cannot have it both ways. The more you put in place to make life safe, the less free it becomes,” McCormack said.

During the Q&A session, the panel members came to realize they were on the same page on the morality and ethics of the NSA. The panel discussion was slanted because representatives of the NSA are prohibited to discuss classified details, and no other representative who would speak on behalf of the NSA agreed to attend.

“The panel openly said that all actionable intel that has stopped acts of terror in the US was collected by human intelligence, not snooping emails and listening to my phone calls. So why are they spending so much money on it when it’s less effective?” junior Dave Webster said.

Although many students were left with unanswered questions due to the Q&A session going over the time limit, panel members encouraged students concerned about privacy to be adamant about voicing their opinions. The time is now: write a congressman or government representative and refuse to go unheard.