By: Rose Dorvel

February 19, 2015

Has media coverage of Snowden’s NSA leaks conditioned Americans to have no subjective expectation of privacy in their virtual lives?

Earlier this week, New York Times columnist David Carr dropped dead mysteriously following a panel interview with Snowden discussing the film Citizenfour, which tracks the former-NSA-contractor-turned-whistleblower’s decision to leak National Security Agency’s documents on widespread, unchecked governmental spying on citizens to the media. Conspicuously absent from the article is mention of any privacy protection measures underway that were prompted by Snowden’s leaks.

With each article that exposes the sweeping surveillance of American citizens—without mention of mitigation measures underway by public or private actors, the notion that one’s virtual life is always being watched and retained for potential future use, misuse or abuse is drilled into the public’s brain. After an avalanche of articles exposing relentless NSA spying on U.S. citizens, Americans are aware and on notice that the government is relentlessly capturing their personal data (via phones, computers, social media, etc.). Repetition of this idea, without consequential public or political backlash, has not accomplished protection against pervasive privacy invasion, presumably the objective of Snowden’s decision to leak NSA documents.

Instead, Americans are told and again that the NSA tracks and records their every move, which is likely and, often necessarily, an electronic one in the modern day.

An insidious consequence of the media’s Snowden coverage is that the people have been conditioned to accept the pervasive spying as normal, perhaps per a regime to protect American freedoms from threats of terror. This result is antithetical to Snowden’s pledged objective to curb widespread unchecked spying, and one that could actually lead to an acceptance of total surveillance, and consequent erosion of Fourth and First Amendment protections. After hearing Snowden’s story, many Americans may no longer subjectively expect any privacy when they use their smartphones, computers, and other ubiquitous digital devices.

With the all the media coverage and a film in the public domain publicizing pervasive NSA surveillance, would an American citizen subjectively expect his electronic communications to be kept private? Would society consider such an expectation reasonable? What about in the name of national security?

Carnivore, an FBI program capable of recording, searching and storing all contents of electronic communication, was the hotly debated subject of governmental initiatives to establish more stringent privacy protection measures. Then 9/11 promptly snuffed out the debate.

Hitler, in Mein Kampf, said “The best way to take control over a people and control them utterly is to take a little of their freedom at a time, to erode rights by a thousand tiny and almost imperceptible reductions. In this way, the people will not see those rights and freedoms being removed until past the point at which these changes cannot be reversed.” Let’s examine whether Americans have exchanged some of their civil liberties for a promise of security from an external terror threat, how we can balance homeland security measures with the Fourth Amendment’s “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches,” and initiate means to protect information privacy until privacy as we know—or knew—it is gone for good.