Point of View

At NCSU, a betrayal of values with NSA deal

August 24, 2013 

Unlike the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Fourth Amendment is a model of clarity. Here it is:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

What this means is that the government must have probable cause to believe that a crime is being committed or will be committed before conducting invasive surveillance of any U.S. citizen.

But one thing we’ve learned from whistleblower Edward Snowden is that the National Security Agency has no regard for the liberties supposedly guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. As Snowden revealed, the NSA has engaged in massive, warrantless spying on Americans’ email, text and phone communications.

We’ve also learned, through a series of subsequent revelations, that federal officials in charge of these programs are more than willing to lie to us about what they’re doing, or to engage in such verbal prevarication as to make honest debate impossible. But don’t worry, we’re told, because secret courts making secret rulings based on secret laws are looking out for our interests.

Against this Orwellian background, N.C. State University recently announced that it will partner with the NSA to create a new Laboratory for Analytic Sciences on the university’s Centennial Campus. The goal is to help the NSA do a better job of analyzing the “big data” it amasses through its snooping.

N.C. State administrators, apparently aware of their new partner’s unsavory reputation, have hastened to say that the facility will not be involved in “operational intelligence work,” nor will it store classified data. Such statements are yet another example of the semantic games that impede serious discussion of the threats to liberty posed by the NSA’s behavior.

Whether anyone physically located at the Laboratory for Analytic Sciences engages in “operational” intelligence work – and it’s not clear what this term includes or excludes – the lab will still be abetting NSA’s unconstitutional surveillance programs. The same point holds whether or not any classified data are stored on site.


But neither the public nor members of the N.C. State community will truly know what goes on in the lab. Its work will be secret.

According to the news release issued by N.C. State, “due to the high degree of confidentiality required for the LAS work, specific funding, personnel numbers and facility details cannot be provided.” Access to the lab will require a security clearance.

So again we are supposed to trust those who have proven to be allergic to the truth and resistant to democratic accountability. Maybe this is how things normally operate in the dark recesses of so-called intelligence agencies, but it is not how they should operate in public universities.

Unlike other institutions in our society that serve private interests in power or profit, public universities should serve the common good, and this can happen only if universities remain bastions of openness, honesty, free speech and truth-seeking. The nefarious practices of agencies such as the NSA and CIA belie these values.

Defenders of N.C. State’s collaboration with the NSA will claim that only good things will come of it: better anti-terrorism investigations, high-tech jobs, commercial spin-offs, overhead monies to help run the university.

But we’ll never know the full range of costs – to privacy, to liberty, to the free pursuit of knowledge – because we’ll never be given the information needed to make an informed assessment. Sorry, but that information is classified.

Collaborating with the NSA also helps to normalize the behavior of the surveillance state. By aiding an agency whose contempt for civil liberties is a matter of public record, N.C. State says, in effect, “All that is no big deal. Spying on U.S. citizens is the new normal. Get used to it.” We should not. Not if we care about preserving the freedoms that stand between us and the kind of fascist dystopia described in Orwell’s novel “1984.”

Orwell showed us how pervasive surveillance and language that tortures the truth can destroy not only democracy but the human spirit. Universities should be places in which Orwell’s message is taken seriously and, when times demand, cranked up loudly. It is a shame to think that in some universities the evil that Orwell warned us against is being given space in which to grow.

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at N.C. State University.

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