Taking liberties in the name of freedom

5th July 2013 at 01:00
The US has been viewing private emails as part of its fight against terrorism. Does this pose a threat to democracy?

A furore has broken out after a whistle-blower revealed last month that the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US has had direct access to citizens' emails and social networking content.

Under the Prism programme, officials are able to retrieve data held by some of the world's biggest internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Skype. The surveillance has been part of the US's battle against terrorism since 2007.

But the source of the leak - Edward Snowden, a former technical assistant at the Central Intelligence Agency who fled to Hong Kong, then Russia and is now seeking asylum in a number of countries - believes that "what they're doing (poses) a threat to democracy".

Snowden's actions have divided opinion, with some journalists claiming that he deserves a medal for exposing a danger to our freedom. Journalist Glenn Greenwald of UK newspaper The Guardian, who broke the story, wrote that from a civil liberties standpoint the collection of phone records - also revealed by Snowden - was "rampant abuse and it needs sunlight. That's why this person came forward and that's why we published our stories."

But others, such as John Boehner, speaker of the US House of Representatives, take a different view of Snowden's actions. Boehner told ABC News: "He's a traitor. The disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk. It shows our adversaries what our capabilities are. And it's a giant violation of the law."

Collecting personal data and information could be argued to be a vital part of intelligence gathering and counterterrorism strategies.

Charges against Snowden have already been filed by the US Department of Justice, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the NSA have launched investigations. "If Edward Snowden did leak the NSA data, as he claims, the US government must prosecute him ... and begin extradition proceedings," said Peter King, chair of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

US president Barack Obama has said that surveillance programmes are being run in a way that balances privacy and freedom: "If we did everything necessary for our security, we would sacrifice too much privacy and civil liberties, but if we did everything necessary to have 100 per cent privacy and civil liberties protections, we wouldn't be taking common-sense steps to protect the American people."

What do your students think? Use this story to start a debate, or as the basis of an essay-writing exercise, which could cover the history of surveillance and civil liberties.


Debate this motion: "Blowing the whistle on practices that appear to invade privacy is always a good thing."

Should Edward Snowden, or any other whistle-blower, face charges of treason? On what grounds do students agree or disagree?

To what degree should governments be allowed to monitor, view or collect data from private communications? How could limits be decided and defined?

Give an example of something that would make you become a whistle-blower. Who would you tell first?


Big Brother is watching you

In 1948, when George Orwell finished his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, emails, text messages and mobile phones did not exist. But it is unlikely that the writer would have been surprised by the fact that, almost 30 years after the novel is set, government agencies are collecting data as part of global surveillance operations.

He might, however, have been pleased by the fierce debate that these revelations have provoked.

Orwell - born Eric Arthur Blair - was under surveillance for more than 12 years by Special Branch, the intelligence division of the Metropolitan Police in London, England, which kept a file on him because of suspicions that he was a communist (although an officer from intelligence agency MI5 noted that it was "evident from his recent writings ... that he does not hold with the Communist Party nor they with him").

Orwell's dystopian novel was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels between 1923 and 2005. The author himself was an enigma. A former colonial policeman and teacher, he was often branded an English eccentric. At school he was said to be argumentative. He was later described by a fellow student as "an intellectual and not a parrot for he thought for himself".

Find resources on Nineteen Eighty-Four at bit.lyOrwellResources


State of terror

The word Stasi is short for Staatssicherheitsdienst, which translates as "State Security Service". But for ordinary people living in East Germany after it was divided from West Germany, it meant only one thing: terror.

The motto of the notoriously repressive agency was "Schild und Schwert der Partei" ("Shield and Sword of the Party", referring to the Socialist Unity Party). Its surveillance operations were not only overwhelming - agents would even film suspects through holes drilled in the walls of apartments - but they were also insidious and designed to divide the population.

Between 1950, when it was founded, and its closure in 1989, the Stasi employed 274,000 people. But it is estimated that as many as one in every 63 East Germans collaborated with the agency. Families were driven apart, terrifyingly illustrated in the award-winning German film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, pictured).

No area of life was immune: schools, universities and hospitals were extensively infiltrated. In every apartment building, at least one tenant was designated as a watchdog.

A range of lesson plans on the Stasi can be found on the TES Connect website (bit.lyStasiResources). You could also ask your students to imagine - perhaps for a writing lesson or essay - what they would have done to keep information about their lives private. Or would they have become a spy? How would such surveillance have affected their family life and their friendships? How would they have decided who they could trust? And how would this have affected them emotionally and intellectually?


Has terrorism affected our rights? Discuss using rclifford12's resources. bit.lyterrorVrights

Tackle the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four with this detailed scheme of work for students aged 16 and over, shared by jcsmeetonk. bit.ly1984sow l Explore the Stasi and the film The Lives of Others in charlie_overend's lesson. bit.lylivesofothers

Are whistle-blowers heroes or traitors? Debate with a case study from PeaceEducation. bit.lywhistle-blower


Better safe than sorry

Young people often appear to be utterly dependent on their mobile phones, constantly texting, emailing or social networking.

But how many of them realise the precautions they should take to stay safe? Or that what they have posted to entertain their friends could make them vulnerable to predatory adults or to cyber-bullying from their peers?

A lesson available on the TES Connect website has elements of fun, including a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?-style quiz called "Who Wants to Be a Safe Communicator?" But it also considers some important points. Start by asking children what they think the term "social networking" means, and check that they know they have to be 13 before they are allowed to use Facebook.

But the most critical message is that, unless they take precautions and understand privacy settings, the information and pictures they post could be available for the world to see.

Incidences of cyber-bullying have increased over the past few years. And it is not enough for students to claim that they would never instigate such activity. Explain that even if they join in with someone else to bully or intimidate another person, they are equally culpable. Courage is needed to put a stop to cyber-bullying.

Find the lesson at bit.lysafecommunicator


Define and understand cyberbullying and its effects in Beatbullying's lesson. bit.lycyberbullyLP

Watch a thought-provoking video about CCTV surveillance in the UK, shared by BBC Class Clips - RE amp; Citizenship. bit.lycctvUK

Introduce your class to the basics of news writing in TESEnglish's activity. bit.lyNewsReportWriting

EmmyCD's lesson considers how news stories are reported and why some are given more prominence than others. bit.lyNewsValues.

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