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Does National Security outweigh the right to privacy?

By Talia Klein Perez
 Adam Berry/Getty
*Updated 2020
It’s the 21st century, and everyone is online. Our personal information is digitized and available to anyone with the means to access it, but should Americans give up their right to personal privacy in return for greater security? Both rights are crucial, but often come at each other’s expense. As countries around the world are contemplating or enact ways via mobile apps to digitally trace the whereabouts of those infected with the coronavirus, the question of maintaining privacy is ever more in question.
Long before the coronavirus pandemic, privacy was a concern. An annual report issued by Director of National Intelligence revealed that the NSA (The U.S. National Security Agency) gathered over 151 million records of Americans’ phone calls in 2016, even after Congress limited its ability to do just that. It’s a huge number, but actually a fraction of what the NSA used to collect before 2016 through a mechanism designed to identify suspected terrorist.
Here are three arguments for safeguarding personal privacy and three arguments for increased national security.


National Security outweigh privacy


We are at war

Different rules apply to the government and its citizens in times of war, whether we are in the midst of a war on terror or a global health pandemic. With regard to terrorism, to reduce the chances of terrorists entering America, some loss of privacy and tighter security measures are required. True, these tactics affect the innocent as well as the guilty, but when the incredibly hard to detect “lone wolf terrorist,” is the assailant of choice, casting a wider net via internet surveillance makes a much more effective security measure. Digital surveillance is especially relevant today, when governments of many nations are putting their concern for privacy controls aside and, instead, turning toward mobile apps to trace the contacts of those infected with Covid-19.


It’s the government’s job to secure its citizens’ general welfare

The words, “the general welfare” appear twice in the U.S. Constitution. As “securing general welfare” is actually written in the Constitution, whereas “privacy” is only defended in amendments, national security should be prioritized over any concerns for personal privacy. Namely, the common good outweigh personal preferences. In the case of protecting against terrorism, the common good does include surveillance to prevent attacks against Americans or on American soil from being carried out. Better intelligence and security measures will help prevent the loss of life. In the case of containing a global health pandemic, the common good may include mobile contact-tracing apps, which can help people know if they’ve come into contact with infected people. Such apps may also help lift nationwide shutdowns, saving economies. Are all of these not worthwhile reasons to allow for reduced privacy?


National security enables a pluralist, inclusive society

Generally speaking, the wider net of national security measures can identify xenophobes and racially or religiously motivated criminals and act against them before harm is caused to others. For members of minority groups or the LGBT community, a loss of privacy can mean a better quality of life, as those who seek to ostracize and harm them are apprehended before they can do physical damage – and the hateful teachings they spread can be removed from social media platforms and websites. Better surveillance might have prevented the 2016 shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub, or the 2017 Minnesota mosque bombing.


Privacy outweigh National Security


Personal privacy is protected by law

Modern, western liberal democracies are established with the purpose of protecting the rights of their citizens. One of these rights is the right to privacy. While not explicitly stated in the U.S. Constitution, the right to personal privacy is protected by some amendments, including the 4th Amendment, which bans unreasonable “search and seizures,” and is most often upheld by statutory law. This means that, according to U.S. law, a person has the right to determine what sort of information about them is collected and how that information is used.  Allowing organizations such as the NSA to engage in bulk data collection under the cloak of keeping Americans safe violates this right, instead of safeguarding it.


National Security measures don’t always increase security

The government’s use of “National Security” isn’t always about increasing security. It has been used in the past as a comfortable way to avoid transparency, leading to the loss of basic human rights. Or, to make excuses for wasted time and money, as is the case with Security Theater. The latter refers to activities that make people feel safer, but in reality, do little to improve a security situation. For example, post 9/11 airport security measures, which, according to some TSA officials, infringe on privacy for little to no gain.  As for contact-tracing apps, and their ultimate effect, time will tell if the trade-off of privacy for coronavirus containment was worth it.

It’s a question of trust. Given that the government has earned our suspicions for their “National Security” cry, aren’t we entitled to more transparency and stricter enforcement of our rights?


Legal surveillance channels do exist – why not use them?

Legal channels exist and are used to keep order and maintain the peace. When a police officer wants to enter a building and look for incriminating evidence, a search warrant is obtained. When undercover cops want to bust a drug cartel, an arrest warrant is issued. Yet, when it comes to internet surveillance, everyone is watched, without just cause or proof of suspicion. Why not use legal channels (and come up with new ones) to obtain information about private persons only when there is enough reason to do so?

This is why Americans are generally in favor of additional legal protections against abuses of their data. Roughly 68% of internet users believe current laws are not good enough in protecting people’s privacy online


The Bottom line: The fine line between privacy and national security is dynamic. The government must constantly reassess its need to invade U.S. citizens’ personal privacy, according to the information’s possible contribution to a more secure America. In times of terror or Covid-19, does our privacy come at the expense of our safety? If so, is that a price you are willing to pay?

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