Government Surveillance: The Utilitarian Cost of Security Theater

By Izzy Davis (PO ’22)

Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who infamously leaked classified information about the NSA’s illegal spying tactics in 2013, outlined the utilitarian perspective in regards to government surveillance: “We’d do well to remember that at the end of the day, the law doesn’t defend us; we defend the law. And when it becomes contrary to our morals, we have both the right and the responsibility to rebalance it toward just ends.”

This discussion of means and justified ends stems from utilitarianism, which passes ethical judgement on one key question: which option best “maximizes utility” ie. contributes the most to society’s greater good? Government surveillance is deemed morally prohibited by the utilitarian perspective because empirical evidence shows that it is not effective in protecting citizens, therefore the consequential suffering of citizens as a result of the infringement of privacy rights, monetary expense, and loss of autonomy is not justified. 

Government surveillance has continuously proven to be ineffective, creating a situation where there is negligible consequential benefit to citizens’ protection and wellbeing. Within this context, effectiveness is characterized as a surveillance system that, “has the technical capacity to deliver the intended security goals, and when employed for a defined goal within the necessary context achieves the intended outcome.” In 2013, a third-party White House review panel investigating NSA surveillance was asked if there was any evidence that ongoing surveillance stopped terrorism. Geoffrey Stone, a law professor on the board, asserted, “[the panel] found none” and that, “the program was non-essential in preventing attacks.” William Binney, a former NSA official stated, “the US government’s mass surveillance programs have become so engorged with data that they are no longer effective… That, [Binney] said, can — and has — led to terrorist attacks succeeding…. [and] why they couldn’t stop the Boston bombing, or the Paris shootings.” The utilitarian framework requires for the wellbeing of the populace to outweigh the suffering inflicted by a certain policy. It could be argued then, that the protection provided by government surveillance of citizens would outweigh the resulting breach of individual autonomy, however, that would only be a sound argument if government surveillance was truly effective as a deterrent. Due to its inefficiency, government surveillance is not morally permissible according to utilitarianism. 

Many have argued that the presence of government surveillance creates a positive sense of security for the populace, regardless of effectiveness. According to the Pew Research Center, public sentiment after the 9/11 attacks has led to a, “majorit[y] of adults favor[ing] a “security first” approach to these issues…New incidents often result in Americans backing at least some extra steps by the law enforcement and intelligence communities to investigate terrorist suspects, even if that might infringe on the privacy of citizens.” The illusion of safety that surveillance creates, falling in line with the principle that “ignorance is bliss” does serve a purpose psychologically. One could argue that the utility of surveillance lies in the appearance of efficacy, rather than efficacy itself. If the public, including terrorists, perceives surveillance tactics as effective, then it is possible for terrorism to be deterred, consequently leading to genuine effectiveness. This security theater is able to become an effective deterrent for terrorism through creating a placebo for both terrorists and citizens alike, therefore protecting American citizens and judging government surveillance as morally permissible. 

The downfall of the opponent’s position is their misinterpretation of “security theater” as a benefit to overall happiness rather than a cause of more suffering. This false sense of security is a detriment to societal wellbeing. The facade of government surveillance serves as a danger to citizens; pretending that the methods are effective can make us more vulnerable if false knowledge on the purported usefulness of these methods were to perpetuate. Additionally, the opposing viewpoint claims that effectively lying to citizens about the competence of government surveillance methods can be justified by the positive psychological consequences. Though comforting, a false sense of security doesn’t ultimately add to the true wellbeing of any individual when there is an actual security risk. The security expert Dr. Bruce Schneider explains: “terrorist attacks are actually rare, and that security theater – implementing security measures that are not proven to actually increase security, but give the public a sense of security – plays into the hands of the terrorists by treating them as legitimate military opponents and overreacting to their fear tactics.” 

These programs also come at a significant monetary cost. A study conducted by Oxford University used “risk assessment to determine the risk of a terrorist attack and then gauge[d] whether the costs of security measures are outweighed by the benefit of a likely-prevented attack.” Researchers “argue that the enormous amounts of spending in the U.S. on anti-terrorist measures far outweigh the benefits gained.” This colossal investment by the government has proven fruitless, and thus places an undue burden on taxpayers to support an ineffective system. What is the purpose of spending an astronomical amount of government funds on government surveillance if it doesn’t contribute to societal welfare? There is a case to be made that these actions by the U.S. government are a mass scale power-grab  — the infringement of our rights is a slow creep and capitalizes on the normalization of a surveillance state.

The notion that if you haven’t done anything ‘wrong’ then you have nothing to worry about in regards to surveillance misses the entire point. This issue moves beyond individual guilt and innocence and concerns societal welfare at large. The precedent set by government surveillance is a dangerous one, and our collective apathy is complicit in its success. The needless breach of privacy resulting from security theater is clearly morally prohibited by utilitarian theory, yet none of that matters if no one decides to lift the curtain.

Viewing government surveillance through the lens of utilitarian theory maintains several faults —  namely that there is no objective metric to quantify net happiness or suffering. Additionally, utilitarianism deems any negative consequence, no matter how egregious, irrelevant to morality if the action under review leads to the greatest amount of happiness for the maximum number of people. This is obviously a problematic belief if viewed through the lens of sacrificing the few for the benefit of the majority. As a framework to view the morality of government surveillance, utilitarianism proves somewhat effective. However, the discussion of the moral nature of surveillance necessitates far more nuance than the utilitarian perspective allows. 

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