Panel on Surveillance

Tensae Andargachew (BSE ‘15)

From the moment you swipe your debit card to pay for something, to the moment you make a phone call to anyone, anywhere – you are being watched. Indeed, the ubiquitous trail of data that everyone leaves behind is being collected and possibly processed and surveyed.

Last Monday, in the Great Hall, there was a discussion held on this very issue – the issue of surveillance. The discussion, moderated by Paul Garrin (A’82), and featuring Stanley Cohen, Paul DeRienzo, James Bamford and Donna Lieberman was one that was very informative – telling the audience of the potential pitfalls of surveillance.

The first member of the panel to take the stage was Stanley Cohen. He began with a simple unrelated remark: “Lincoln was taller, but I have a better beard”. He then went on and acknowledged people who have made contributions to the discussion on privacy, rights, and surveillance: Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning), Edward Snowden, and Daniel Ellsberg. After this, he stated that the underlying culture of surveillance comes from the government’s need to do all that it can to protect itself.

Following Cohen’s introduction, Paul DeRienzo gave a number of case histories concerning instances of the government agencies of America spying on the citizenry. He told a story about a homeless woman who was taken to court after stumbling upon some sensitive documents. The judicial process incurred costs this woman had to pay that DeRienzo deemed outrageous relative to her crime. According to DeRienzo, his concerns over the cost of the proceedings were ignored because the accusing party was only interested in getting a conviction. He concluded his talk with a stark reminder that someone always watches us and a suggestion that the only way to combat the FBI is to use their own tactics against them.

After Paul DeRienzo came James Bamford, who spoke on the N.S.A’s history, and his understanding of the agency. He concluded his speech by asking the audience to be listeners, and stating that he believes the opacity of the N.S.A. would be cleared away some day, and become a totally transparent agency.

Finally, before the panelists had their discussion, Donna Lieberman took the stage and told stories of people receiving arbitrary convictions as a reminder that often, there is very good reason to keep their guard up. She also spoke on the ills of collections of big data, pointing out that it not only violates liberties, but also makes searching for the ‘needle in the haystack’ harder and inefficient.

For the next hour and a half, the panelists convened on the stage in the Great Hall, discussing many things – the differences between lawful and constitutional, and the erosion of privacy. After questions from the audience were taken, the event concluded. Everyone walked out more informed and more aware, but still watched. ◊

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