The NSA Leaks, Monitoring and Surveillance: A Teachable Moment in American History


We are all minor participants in the story that, by now, perhaps you know: that the National Security Agency has been monitoring digital communications. We are participants because, for some of us, we are citizens of the United States and responsible to the country in the way that our government asks. We have a role, as citizens, to participate in ensuring a safe, civil and secure nation. For others, those of you outside the United States, the story is no doubt different.

Yet the internal dialogue is similar: Given our role as citizens, what constitutes acceptable monitoring? Where does monitoring end and surveillance begin? What about our activities could or should remain private to all prying eyes, and what might be “shareable” with government or other entities?

These are tough questions. Rather than to share my answers, I wanted to share a rhetorical approach to the dialogue and, more specifically, a rhetorical approach that you might consider using with your students. No doubt we will all generate differing answers, but perhaps our process can be informed and fair-minded through and through.

Lesson introduction:

On June 6, 2013, The Guardian, a daily newspaper serving the United Kingdom, broke news that the National Security Agency (NSA) had “… obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants”. The news sparked intense international debate about national security, monitoring, surveillance and privacy. Given heated reactions from the public and policymakers, and from national and international government representatives, it is important to consider the issues cogently and carefully.

This lesson is intended to provide educators with a framework for engaging students in measured exploration of monitoring and privacy in the digital age. It assumes a neutral position and is not intended to inspire judgement of people or institutions. By focusing on a rhetoric for exploring the issues, but by ignoring the personalities and personal judgement, my hope is that students will develop additional capacity to make informed determinations about their approach to privacy, monitoring and surveillance now, as learners, and in the future, as citizens and leaders.  determination about the experience, about its legality and permissibility, about truth and truthiness, and about how they might govern were they to be put in positions of responsibility in the future.

This event will be remembered for its impact on intelligence gathering, monitoring and surveillance, and for raising important discussion about the ability and responsibility of the government to monitor digital communications. By engaging our students in this teachable moment, we can provide education that students will later use as thought, government and private sector leaders.

Educational Objectives:

  1. Define personal privacy
  2. Distinguish between monitoring and surveillance
  3. Weigh and reconcile the need for monitoring and surveillance with personal privacy implications
  4. Explore personal implications, make connections to technology practices and policies

Resource: Open as a Google Document


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