Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Privacy Questions Linger After NSA Surveillance Leak

Matt Cardy/Getty Images stringer

In the wake of the NSA surveillance leak, many Americans are outraged and asking, "Do we live in a big brother state?"

President Obama is in Europe this week for the G-8 Summit in Ireland. His reception by Europeans is a little frostier than it has been in past years, in part because of the controversy emerging at home over surveillance and scrutiny of phone and internet records by the National Security Agency - measures that some European leaders had been critical of in past US presidential administrations.

But if the reaction among Europeans has been strong, it pales in comparison to the controversy that has brewed in this country since the UK newspaper The Guardian first published its report on the government's access to cell phone records, and NSA contractor Edward Snowden came forward as a source of leaks. 

Same old surveillance

Lake Effect contributor Art Cyr believes it's worth looking at how the NSA has conducted past surveillance programs.  

"The government during the Vietnam period engaged in extensive, much more human and personal, surveillance of people" says Cyr, who teaches political economy and world business, and is the director of the A.W. Clausen Center for World Business at Carthage College in Kenosha.

Cyr says there's not much to distinguish what the NSA is doing today versus what it's always done.

"Any telephone conversation is subject to government monitoring, that's been going on for half a century," he says. "We don't have privacy in the way that we used to."

But some Americans are wondering what the government possibly gets from combing through don't-forget-to-pick-up-a-gallon-of-2% text messages from mom. And some members of Congress have complained that they've been left in the dark about surveillance and national security issues. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration and other members of Congress have defended the programs, saying they're needed to keep the country safe.

Private data-mining

Cyr says Americans seem to acknowledge the fact that private companies, like Google or Apple, have been data-mining our information for some time now.

"We are being tracked passively all the time," he says.

But there's a difference when it's the U.S. government doing the information gathering, rather than a private company. Cyr says as a people, Americans are "suspicious about authority" and take issue with the government having access to the same information we willingly provide a private company.

"The state can take your life legally, the state can destroy your live in a way private corporations can't," he says.

He says many people are concerned that the U.S. government uses too many contractors for military projects and intelligence - who then have access to that information and methods to obtain it.

"It's also a sign of laziness on our part as citizens. Laziness and complacency that we're willing to contract out to a corporation - guns for hire - [for] military activity," he says.

Syrian conflict

In addition to addressing the surveillance controversy at the G-8, Obama was criticized for his slow response to the Syrian conflict.

Cyr says President Obama is hesitant to get involved with potential fights overseas. While others may perceive that reticence as a personality flaw, Cyr says we should remember that the U.S. holds the most powerful military in the world, and that should not be used on a whim.

"Americans, despite Vietnam, tend to be more casual than Europeans about assuming we can automatically intervene, and therefore change the nature of what's going on in the county," he says, adding this attitude could be a  reason for our military shortcomings in Iraq.

Cyr says an intervention's cost would be high in terms of resources, both material and human, and could cost lives.

(Edited by Stephanie Lecci)