We live in the digital age—a time when every person can keep tabs on each other through a Global Internet. With that comes a national security agenda where surveillance, censorship and technology intersect. But what is the cost to free speech?

The benefits of government surveillance programs are defendable, given the assumption that they exist to protect national security, as a fundamental truth. To the critics out there: the NSA is not the only intelligence community that exists. Every other nation has a system in place to monitor its enemies, its allies and its own people. Terrorism exists in the world, and its effects are indeed terrifying. In his article “Weighing Costs Vs. Benefits of NSA Surveillance,” Jim Reavis claims that we aren’t ready for a risk-based discussion about preventing terrorist attacks. Speaking in terms of pure truths, pure goals and pure intentions, the NSA’s mission is to protect against acts of crime and violence that would compromise the safety of the country, and to “maintain or strengthen privacy and civil liberties protections.” Like Reavis stated, even a physically small act of terror can debilitate a country and inspire more fear for the next attack. If the government were to relax its surveillance programs and another crisis occurred, it would be criticized for not doing everything it could have to prevent such an attack from occurring. One argument for complete transparency is that the public should have uninhibited access to the news, goings on in the world if there was pure transparency and people were not capable of having secrets. But a report published by PEN America  found extensive cases of writers felt compelled to self-censor, be selective about what stories they covered, how they wrote about them, and were reluctant to pursue research of certain subjects.

Culture, or Security?

surveillance_cropAbout 24% of writers had self-censored and deliberately avoided certain topics in phone, e-mail conversations, assuming that pretty much every electronic correspondence they had was being tracked. What does that say about investigative research, uncovering stories of national interest that are guarded by security and intelligence communities, or even culture as a whole? We’ve seen that cases of overly-surveilled communities and cultures have experienced the backlash of having creative and expressive freedoms limited, because the communication of ideas and the flow of information become limited too. The police state is an oppressive one, where the ideas of their people can become more damaging and revolutionary than an outside enemy. We can look not too far historically at China, Iran and the Soviet Bloc to understand the damage done by a state with too aggressive a surveillance regime. We’re not in an age when we can simply hide under a rock, or bury our heads in the sand—it’s likely you’ll be discovered and brought to the attention of the public by the media nonetheless. Living off the grid completely is not so easy. So how can we reconcile the conflict between privacy and the idea of transparency in the media?

The fine line

The relationship between surveillance, transparency and the rights to free expression in the media is evidently strained. We’re far beyond the abilities of the thought police from the totalitarian, Orwellian vision, we’ve exceeded the surveillance from even that imagined dystopia. In the digital age, we have to skirt the boundaries where a protective surveillance program becomes a regime. The fine line where an expressive writer’s ideas are considered dangerous by the state, but in the interest of the public. To what extent should the public be aware of the actual things that the NSA is documenting? If we write and read about it in the news, will our enemies find a weakness to patch over? To what extent should the NSA even be able to monitor its own people in the name of preventative measures? If NSA employees see collecting and disseminating the naked photos intercepted from ordinary people, as a fringe benefit, then something has gone terribly wrong here. However you may see it, national security, the culture of the nations and freedom of expression are inextricably linked and in a delicate balance with each other, straddling the arena where ideas not expressed can be as dangerous as acts of violence.  
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