Amidst revelations of the NSA’s covert data surveillance program, many Americans are feeling a bit worried about the privacy of their inboxes, search history and call logs. But what exactly are the implications of electronic surveillance on a larger scale? Five professors from across the College contemplate the potential impact on their field and research.
Professor of History
Surely the field of history doesn’t even register on the NSA’s radar. After all, we are a notoriously impractical discipline, spending our time thinking about events distant in time…governments no longer in power…long-lost people and practices. If my colleagues are doing Google searches on homemade explosives, they’re studying Gold Rush-era prospectors, not planning terrorist attacks. But this is precisely the point: our own ideas about whether or not we pose a threat to the nation’s security are exactly what the NSA must ignore to do its work. Our ideas about how patriotic, or not, we might be are subordinated to algorithms that “sort” the words used in our emails or detect “patterns” in our Internet searches. Our intentions mean nothing. And this reduction of our complex, value-laden selves to swaths of data raises red flags for historians. We recognize in the NSA’s surveillance a modern refinement of techniques used to oppress dissent in previous eras. For historians, the nature of information itself, as a tool of privilege and power, is firmly established. The excessive record keeping of employers, insurance companies, prisons and government agencies has, for many generations, ill-served democracy. So we worry, and, I hope, plan serious study of and resistance to this fearful development.
Associate Professor of Criminal Justice
The NSA’s massive data surveillance program is part of a growing trend in the collection and use of data by the criminal justice and security communities to identify, solve and prevent crime. This trend has clear implications for the next generation of criminal justice and security professionals, who will need to be highly analytical and skilled in working with large and diverse data sets. Drexel is at the forefront when it comes to criminal justice education and anticipating the future needs of the justice-related workforce. Our new undergraduate concentration in justice informatics will explore how data can be used to develop “knowledge systems” to prevent crime and other security threats and foster justice. By emphasizing the justice component of our students’ education, along with the technical aspects of deploying surveillance and information-gathering systems, I strongly believe we can reduce security threats while also preventing the erosion of privacy rights and the rise of Big Brother in the United States.
Professor of Mathematics
While mathematics is generally not politically controversial, the NSA recruits a great many mathematicians to develop new encryption/decryption algorithms (it is one of the largest employers outside the financial sector). It might find this harder to do as a result of the scandal. It is interesting (ironic?) though that the NSA’s Secure Linux project is one of the best ways to secure a system against surveillance—even from the NSA. It is free software but only available for Linux and some of its Unix-cousins.
Professor of Psychology
Revelations about the NSA’s surveillance program aren’t really revelations—I doubt that this shocked most academics. However, for many scientists, reports about theft of research by foreign governments are a more serious concern. Personal information can, to an extent, be protected by smart use of technology. However, it is very difficult to do scientific research without storing data and laboratory protocols on computers. This may not (yet) be a major issue in psychological research, but it has become extremely important in technological fields.
As a creativity researcher, I have another concern. Studies show that creativity and innovation are fostered by an environment that is open, yet secure and protected. When people feel that everything they do and say is being recorded and scrutinized, and when they fear that their ideas and work may be stolen, creativity is likely to suffer.
It’s easy to blame the NSA for violating people’s privacy, though I’m sure they’re motivated by a desire to protect the nation. The real problem is that, as a society, we haven’t come to a consensus about where to draw the line between privacy, freedom and creativity on one hand, and security and safety on the other.
Teaching Professor of Communication
The issues surrounding the NSA’s PRISM data surveillance program have been both a boon and a curse to the field of communications. It’s great fodder for academics like me who study telecommunications policy and First Amendment issues. Every time the government, industry or individuals do something that shifts the balance of control over the telecommunications infrastructure, it forces a fresh reappraisal of regulatory policy—and PRISM has created quite a shift.
But outside of education, PRISM and the federal government’s efforts to limit the examination of that program have heightened the once-positive tension between the press and the government to a dysfunctional antagonism. The press is supposed to unmask the excesses of government—that’s why the First Amendment to the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” The recent efforts of our government to inhibit the press from informing the citizenry of its surveillance activity have challenged the complementary roles that the early framers of our Constitution designated for the press and the state.