NSA programs may be legal, but are they ethical?

(CBS News) Calls to "make us safer" in the wake of 9/11 were "all understandable" at the time, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan argued Sunday during a panel discussion on "Face the Nation." But 12 years later, she added, progress in technology to cull metadata begs a second look at the government surveillance programs that have cropped up in response.

"I think this is a perfect time to stop and look at what we are erecting here," Noonan said. "What good it can do, but also what bad it can do. It's a very delicate thing when you have a big state that can make people, citizens, feel that they are, assume that they are potentially going to be abused because of the number of things the government knows about them."

Top-secret documents leaked by a former National Security Agency contractor recently exposed programs that involved collecting the phone records of millions of U.S. citizens and mining data from the servers of nine major Internet companies to extract audio, video, photos and emails, among other things.

Barton Gellman, the Washington Post reporter who broke the news of the programs, said that while he has "no reason to think anybody has violated this sequence of secret laws," there are outstanding questions about "where we want to draw the boundaries and what the laws should be" as a society, "because we don't even know what they are."

"There's a kind of 'catch-22' quality to this," offered Rick Stengel, managing editor of Time magazine. "The government says, 'We can't tell you this,' and the courts say, 'We can't let you know about this, so therefore you have to kind of go with us.'

"...What we really need as a nation is a point of service contract for what the government relationship is to all of our privacy," Stengel continued. "What are we willing to sacrifice, in terms of our own privacy, to guarantee or have the kind of security that we want?"

The social media era, though, is largely complicating what can and is considered private or not, pointed out David Corn from Mother Jones: "People growing up living on Facebook, Instagram, Snapshot and everything else, I think, have less the presumption of privacy because they're giving it up voluntarily. And at the same time, we don't get into this conversation much, but corporations are already doing... what people are fearing the government is doing."

Gellman agreed "there's something to be said for all this, about changing social norms about privacy." But the real problem at hand, he said, "is not whether we assume that the government is doing something, and not whether people generally assume that Facebook is doing something.

"It's not what you give to Facebook," he continued, "it's what Facebook is taking from you without your knowledge."

  • Lindsey Boerma On Twitter»

    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.

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