The conflict between privacy and public security

You own a weapon that can send waves felt across the world, words and messages that towns and cities will see. You own a tool that can do your taxes, ease your mind with music and friends, one that can order food or call for transportation. At your fingertips, you own the world. Is this world something you want the government to see? Probably not. But at the same time, are these measures what it takes to preserve our national security?

Since the words were drilled into us at a young age, “American” and “freedom” have been synonymous. We grew up believing we have a privilege to our privacy and a privilege to a government that should not only tolerate it, but encourage it. So naturally, the public was outraged with the knowledge that the National Security Agency (NSA) was sorting through telephone records, emails exchanged between foreign countries and deployed spy agencies and certain programs to track U.S. citizens, according to the infamous Edward Snowden leaks in 2013. Prism collected backdoor data from Internet companies such as Google and Facebook, Boundless Informant summarized intelligence coverage and EvilOlive collects and stores metadata. And to no one’s surprise, NSA has breached thousands of privacy rules, according to an internal audit covered by the Washington Post. Was the risk worth the millions of people who were unknowingly being watched by the government? Perhaps it wasn’t the most moral decision. Snowden made a good point when he said, “Going to war with people who are not our enemy in places that are not a threat doesn’t make us safe. The Internet is not our enemy.”

But isn’t the government’s primary job to protect its citizens? One can argue that it’s reasonable enough to institute privacy-breaching tactics, considering how the media has become terrorism’s new weapon. We’ve all heard the “better safe than sorry” policy, and the American government supposedly implements such controversial surveillance for our own benefit. Even if we do consider the violation of human rights, most privileges still have a limit nonetheless. Just because we have the freedom of speech does not mean we are allowed to slander and libel. Just because we have the freedom to privacy does not mean a beneficial infringement should be discontinued.

There’s a popular saying: nothing to hide, nothing to fear. And there’s a certain truth to that saying: a study in Newcastle University has shown through a group simulation that just the illusion of being watched influenced better behavior. But on the other hand, just because we have nothing to hide doesn’t mean the government has a right to watch us. That’s the equivalent of arguing that because someone has nothing to say, he or she doesn’t have the right to speak. With so many gray areas and no way to rationally or completely side with either, the best option is to maintain a healthy balance between privacy and national security. Privacy was promised to the American people. But privacy has its limits because without social and legal constructs, crime would run rampant. Without precautionary measures, terrorism will be uncontrolled.

Right now, the NSA uses programs to sift through our data, flagging keywords that are later read by staff. As our technology becomes more advanced, the software the government uses should also become more advanced, so surveillance can not only become more effective through the elimination of human error, but also less personal and invasive. The way to a healthy balance also lies in the ability to communicate. When it comes to ensuring that our rights are not breached while maintaining national security, the population must be informed. Before 2013, we had no idea we were being watched so closely, and we were understandably enraged when we found out. The line where privacy ends and where security begins is drawn by informing the public of such intrusive rules. Transparency between government surveillance and the people is needed to preserve that delicate balance.

The history of this planet and every single species that lives on it is based on one thing: adaptation. Now our government must adapt to the ever-changing world of technology and regulate it so it does not become a threat. However, our government must also remember that the tools capable of bringing down entire countries, leaders and people are also used throughout our daily lives.

By Angela Cao, Opinion editor
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia