Mass surveillance in the United States precedes the War on Terror. Nevertheless, since Edward Snowden’s leaks, it is terrorism that is marshalled as the ultimate threat by government officials and compliant media outlets to justify the need for mass surveillance. In June 2013, the National Security Agency (NSA) director Keith Alexander testified before Congress that just two programs–“tracking more than a billion phone calls and vast swaths of Internet data each day”–had thwarted more than 50 potential terrorist attacks. He later admitted that this wasn’t exactly true, after the claim had already been thoroughly refuted.
A different rendition of this argument for mass surveillance suggests that a society under threat by terrorists must strike a balance between its civil liberties and safety. If the state is to have the capabilities necessary to protect us we must compromise on our civil liberties. A bit of privacy must be relinquished in order for the state to become cognizant of potential threats to our safety. On a superficial level, the argument makes sense, even if it exaggerates the terrorist threat.