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Privacy and Freedom Is More Important Than Security

In the 21st century we are all online. That means all of our personal information is online as well. Even if the information is locked away beyond a supposedly secure password, it is online and available to anyone with the means to access it.

The 21st century has also been the age of counter-terrorism, and these two facts combined have given immense importance to the debate on the importance of privacy. As governments do everything they can to combat terrorism they have inevitably turned to spying on their own citizens. Is national security so important that it is worth this violation of liberty and privacy?

Should Americans be prepared to give up some privacy in return for greater security? Or has the government already gone too far in invading our personal freedoms?

We explore a few of the main arguments in the debate below.

All the Yes points:

  1. Philosophical Foundations of Government
  2. Overvaluing the Risk of Terrorism
  3. Why Not Use Legal Channels?
  4. Security Theatre
  5. Beyond National Security

All the No points:

  1. The most important job of government is to “secure the general welfare” of its citizens.
  2. Surveillance is the secret watching of suspects’ private activities.
  3. Tighter security controls at airports and borders will help prevent attacks and loss of life.
  4. Tighter immigration laws and tougher entry measures can be used.
  5. Most rights are not (absolute) unlimited but have to be balanced against other rights.
  6. We are at war at present and so different rules need to apply from times of peace.

Philosophical Foundations of Government

Yes because…

Let’s start with the philosophical fundamentals. Limiting civil liberties and the right to privacy in the name of defending a liberal democratic nation is the ultimate hypocrisy. Modern, western liberal democracies exist to protect the rights of their citizens. The great John Locke, spiritual father of the modern liberal democracies, believed that all people were born with god-given rights, one of which was liberty, and that the purpose of governments was to protect those rights. If that same government is attacking our liberty and our privacy under the guise of keeping us secure, than it is betraying its very essence.

No because…

Yes, governments are beholden to protect the natural rights of their citizens, but that is just one of many tasks of governing. Even our friend John Locke would have agreed that a society (represented by a government) is ultimately a social contract, agreed upon by all its members, with the purpose of protecting the constituents’ freedoms as well as the constituents themselves. Without the social contract we are nothing but intelligent animals, writhing in the state of nature. When we sign the social contract (figuratively that is) we give up some of our rights to the government in order that we may be protected, and sometimes that government might have to infringe on our other rights in order to protect us. Our rights do us no good if we’re dead anyway.

Overvaluing the Risk of Terrorism

Yes because…

In many cases, invasive surveillance laws are passed amidst panic, often right after a terrorist attack when citizens are scared and desperate for anything to make them feel secure again. It was in such a climate, just after the September 11 terrorist attacks, that the US government passed the Patriot Act. In these desperate times people rally together, but they are also easily manipulated. It is these moments of crisis that prudence is more important than ever. The hysteria caused by terrorist attacks is largely caused by a cognitive bias rampant in the human race known as the availability heuristic. The availability heuristic causes people to consider something more dangerous or more imminent when they can easily bring it to mind and imagine it. It’s why people are often more afraid of terrorist attacks than cancer even though Americans are over 6,500 times more likely to die from cancer. It is almost always because of these types of exaggerated risks that our governments take away our freedoms in exchange for security. But if we recognize that the risks are over-blown we realize that giving up our rights isn’t worth it.

No because…

First of all, the reason that there have been so few terrorist attacks in the last ten years is the direct result of measures such as the Patriot Act. It is true that people tend to over-value the likelihood of a terrorist attack, but I for one would like to keep it that way so that we remain vigilant. National security is a constant project. It is more than preventing individual terrorist attacks, it is knowing what our enemies are doing at all times. And that is something that we don’t value enough.

Why Not Use Legal Channels?

Yes because…

I don’t hear people advocating large scale surveillance in order to crackdown on drug trafficking. There are legal channels in which the police can obtain a warrant which permits them to tap a potential terrorist’s phone or his or her computer. These legal channels exist for a reason, so why should our governments bend the law and spy on us?

No because…

Terrorism is a much different beast than drug trafficking. Our governments generally deter crime through punishment. By punishing perpetrators of a given crime would-be criminals are discouraged from committing that crime in the future. However, in the case of terrorists, the attacks are often suicide attacks. The perpetrators of terrorist attacks are so ideologically driven that their personal well-being is of no importance to them. These kind of actions can not be deterred, they can only be prevented. In addition, terrorist attacks are designed to cause as much damage as possible with as few resources as possible. The aim is destruction and terror. While most other crime is committed for personal gain and the consequences normally don’t extend beyond a small sphere of influence. Terrorism is a different beast and thus requires more advanced weapons to be slain.

Security Theatre

Yes because…

The largely ineffective TSA is a classic example of what’s known as “security theatre.” Security theatre is a security action that is very visible but not very effective and thus gives people the illusion that they are being protected but doesn’t produce actual results. When it comes to anti-terrorism policy, we are extremely susceptible to security theatre because of the availability heuristic discussed above. Basically, it’s more important that it looks like something is being done to protect us than that something is actually being done to protect us. Because terrorism is an over-blown threat and politicians know it, they can dazzle us with security theatre and gain our admiration even if nothing effective is really being done. Meanwhile this wasted money could have been spent on something useful like healthcare or education. What’s worse is that in this post 9/11 climate of panic, we’ve been taught that privacy invasion is necessary to keep us safe, and so we take it on faith. The violation of our basic human rights has become a grotesque kind of security theatre in itself.

No because…

Security theatre is a real problem and one that the security community is aware of and wants to eradicate. In fact, the ‘theatre” problem is prevalent in many areas of government. Look at the dubious effectiveness of standardized testing in education for example. This issue is just evidence that we need to be out there trying different security methods and studying them to determine what works and what doesn’t. The fact that security isn’t perfect isn’t a reason to abandon it. We don’t apply that reasoning to any other aspect of knowledge, so why would we apply it here?

Beyond National Security

Yes because…

Let’s stop worrying about national security for a moment and worry about personal security. Thanks to the increasing digitization of every aspect of our lives, it is becoming easier and easier for companies and the government to mine our personal data. This digitization of our reality is sending us down a very slippery slope into a world in which every aspect of our being is being monitored by corporations. “But wait,” you might be saying, “corporations can’t use my data without my permission, and I won’t give it to them!” Well, you’re correct in that corporations need your permission to use your data, but what’s terrifying is that you’re actually going to give it to them. As more aspects of our personal lives become connected to the internet, we become more and more easy to spy on. Corporations will learn to take advantage of all this information, and they’ll also come up with ways to make us comply. For example, the John Hancock Company has announced that they will give discounts on health insurance to customers who meet certain requirements based on their FitBit data. Of course, the company says you don’t have to participate, but you want cheap health insurance don’t you? These types of policies will only become more prevalent, and eventually corporations and even the government may require you to plug into their spy networks in exchange for access to services as essential as welfare or applying for a job. First they tell us we need to give up our rights in exchange for national security, next we’re giving up our rights for cheaper health insurance.

No because…

The most important job of government is to “secure the general welfare” of its citizens.

No because…

The most important job of government is to “secure the general welfare” of its citizens. Security is a common good that is promised to all Americans, and it must outweigh any personal concerns about privacy. The word “privacy” is not found in the US Constitution so it cannot be claimed as a fundamental right.

Yes because…

The right to privacy lie behind the 4th Amendment to the Constitution, which bans unreasonable “search and seizure”. When the government collects and shares information about its citizens, it is conducting an electronic version of such banned searches.

Surveillance is the secret watching of suspects’ private activities.

No because…

Surveillance is the secret watching of suspects’ private activities. In the past this usually involved following people, or going through their trash. These days it is mostly electronic, with the police and intelligence agencies listening into private phone conversations or reading emails (wiretapping). Surveillance can also involve looking at bank account details to see where money comes and goes. All these are vital tools for tracking the actions of terrorists when they are planning attacks. The government cannot stand by and wait until criminal acts are carried out: it must stop attacks before they happen.

Yes because…

Any idea that increases the power of government agencies should be rejected. In the past, government agencies (for example, the IRS tax authorities) have misused their power over citizens. More power means a greater potential for abuse.

Tighter security controls at airports and borders will help prevent attacks and loss of life.

No because…

Tighter security controls at airports and borders will help prevent attacks and loss of life. Such measures could include more intrusive scanning, body searches, watch lists, etc. In addition to their deterrence effect, they will enable officials to stop attacks as they are happening.

Yes because…

Tighter security controls can also be used to target particular ethnic and religious groups in a way that is unfair and biased. This is bad in itself, but it also risks setting such groups against our society and creating more future terrorists. If Osama Bin Laden is saying that America is at war with Islam, picking on Muslims at airports because they have brown skin and Arabic-sounding names only plays into his hands.

Tighter immigration laws and tougher entry measures can be used.

No because…

Tighter immigration laws and tougher entry measures can be used to reduce the chances of terrorists entering America. For example, travellers from certain countries can be made to get visa papers before their journey. Airlines flying to the USA now have to pass lists of their passengers to the authorities before they take off for America. Some passengers could be given searching interviews on arrival.

Yes because…

Measures aimed at travellers to the USA affect the innocent as well as the guilty. This is especially true in the case of foreign nationals. Tighter entry controls may keep out foreigners (for example, scientists, tourists, students) whose skills and money could be good for the United States. In any case, many terrorist attacks around the world have been carried out by citizens against their own country, not by foreigners.

Most rights are not (absolute) unlimited but have to be balanced against other rights.

No because…

Most rights are not (absolute) unlimited but have to be balanced against other rights. For example, the right to free speech does not allow you to shout fire in a crowded theatre, because people may be killed in a rush for the exits. In the same way, any right to privacy is by no means absolute, and Americans already allow the government to control some of their private actions. For example, the government can require drivers to wear safety belts. Any intrusions on privacy for the sake of security would be minimal, and the most important rights would still be respected.

Yes because…

History has shown that the excuse of national security has often led to the loss of basic rights. For example, Japanese-American citizens were locked up during World War II on security grounds. We should not allow the government to take even small steps in a direction that can lead to something worse.

We are at war at present and so different rules need to apply from times of peace.

No because…

We are at war at present and so different rules need to apply from times of peace. As Commander-in-Chief the President is allowed to take steps to make sure the country and its people are kept safe. Compared to conscripting people into the military, some loss of privacy is a small price to pay. Once the threats America is facing are over, normal rights to privacy could return.

Yes because…

The war on terror is not a war like World War II. The enemy is not a state and it is not clear how victory will be reached. This means any loss of privacy will be open ended and may last for many years. But even in times of war, America’s strength is in our rights and freedoms. It is American individualism and personal freedom that our enemies often hate the most. By changing our society to make us less free we are playing into their hands. A victory at the cost of the liberties that make our society great is not worth having.

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Privacy and Freedom
5 years ago

Probability speaking, Your more likely to die from a card accident versus Terrorist. People just have a large weight against the fear of dying by terrorism versus a car.

Tighter security at airports will not prevent a single attach, just change the initial start of the attack.

Tighter immigration does not lead to improved safety and security. Citizens are more likely to cause harm to others than immigrates since they want to stay in the county.

Security may never be absolute but privacy can be.

Politicians have twisted the words “We are at War”. Who are we at war with? Those that hate us? That is a lot of people that don’t like you our your ideas but they don’t kill you. Then, are you still at war with those that hate you?

If the Government’s main concept was to secure it’s citizens then the Second Amendment would all the right to bare arms. Government would be liable for harm to it’s citizens. The right for a person to protect and define them-self is because the Government is incapable of performing that task.

Right to privacy and freedom because Government officials will always abuse their power and knowledge!

melanie delaine 3rd bell
6 years ago

the government is restricted to be allowed access with cameras in many areas for instance your own home. another example would be public bathrooms. most areas in nature.and other seemingly private areas. you are not always being dehumanized by security cameras they cannot watch everything you do every where you go. there are however cameras installed in almost every public grocery store, shopping mall, museum, pizza parlor or shopping strip but they have them for good reasons. when you are in public it is allowed for you to be filmed. this saves many companies and businesses from being screwed over by crooks and thieves and can catch killers and burglers during the time of their crime.

6 years ago

Americans Should Value Security More Than Privacy
Security is more important than privacy. It can save us terrorists attacks from hacking or from entering the United States. In addition, we can use signal intelligence. Signal intelligence is intelligence-gathering by interception of signals, whether communications between people or from electronic signals not directly used in communication. This is used by the NSA which uses signal intelligence to examines foreign communications/activity and relays that information by producing combat, strategic and tactical intelligence reports. We can also put surveillance on people so we know what they are doing, if they are terrorists or criminals, to know what they are planning.

Security can save us from terrorist attacks in form of hacking or entering the United States. The United States has adopted numerous measures to make itself safer since al Qaeda slammed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds of billions of dollars spent to improve security and strengthen intelligence capabilities. More security for travelers. After nearly a decade, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is dead, killed early Monday in Pakistan by U.S. special forces, officials said. The United States focused more on security therefore getting a positive reversion.
In addition, we can also use signal intelligence or SIGINT. A signal intelligence analyst gathers, sorts, and scans intercepted messages to isolate valid message traffic, performs initial analysis to establish target identification and communications patterns, and operates automated data processing. This would help because the analyst listens to information, that comes from terrorists that are planning to make an attack. Then these analysts relay their findings by producing combat, strategic and tactical intelligence reports and notify the appropriate commanders of unusual activity or critical situations so we can respond with the necessary speed, force and precision. This validates the idea that security is way more important than privacy.

We can put surveillance on people so we can know what they are doing, if they are terrorists or criminals, we can know what they are planning. According to the Washington Post, the National Security Agency (NSA) has broken privacy rules thousands of times a year since Congress has given the agency more power in the year of 2008. Most privacy violations that were broken involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States. The most serious infractions included a violation of a court order and unauthorized use of data of around 3,000 Americans and green-card holders. Security should be based on reason, not fear and our privacy will keep becoming exposed unless we appeal to the eye of social media. This demonstrates that surveillance, though may lack privacy, will help security and may catch criminals and terrorists.
In conclusion, the evidence clearly establishes the fact that America should value security way more than privacy. If we no longer have security we might be ruled over again, and then we won’t have any privacy left. Do you want that? I’m guessing not, therefore America should value security more than privacy.

7 years ago

I absolutely hate the fact that they are practically stalking us if you think about it we deserve our own PERSONAL privacy now I bet you that what i’m typing right now is being recorded and if it is then screw your government go and find another way to defend against terrorist attacks that doesn’t involve invading our privacy but you guys won’t because you’er to lazy and all you want is power you guys are actually doing illegal crap called privacy invasion it is one of the amendments so really all the government is doing is breaking the law.

6 years ago
Reply to  Anonymous

Your writing on a public debating site, of course they are gonna see what your typing. It’s not an invasion of privacy if it’s not illegal. It’s not like the government has cameras in your house or bathroom. In this case, viewing this site is not illegal so your point means nothing.

7 years ago

I think the solution to this problem lies in examining the impact of no privacy verses the impact of no security. It is very reasonable to suggest that everyone would rather no privacy than no security. A complete solution would be to request that only computers monitor private information and not allow any person to see another’s private information. The computer could flag anything that has been predetermined to be criminal for officials to see.

7 years ago

I believe that if the people of America truly love their country, they should be willing to give up their secrects to the government. People are so self centered these days, but we have to respect the power that a government should hold. Government is not here to be swayed by the popular opinion, but should have the power to protect the people to the best of its ability. No, you may not trust the government, but do you trust the things you use?
Facebook has thousands upon thousands of pages of data on you even if you haven’t been on in months or years. And should you trust those around you who may be known to “fudge the numbers?”
I leave you with this: is your personal information worth more or less than a life of someone you may know?

Logic police
7 years ago
Reply to  Ethan

“Government is not here to be swayed by the popular opinion” Have you ever heard of democracy?

7 years ago
Reply to  Ethan

But sometimes it is a good reason to not give up power and secrets to the governments some people like to have safe secrets.

7 years ago
Reply to  Ethan

I kind of agree thou but some people might not care about others but them self

7 years ago

I’m a definite no. I think at some point this argument became more about profiling than about personal security. I think it’s largely OK to profile, but that’s also not necessarily invading privacy. Also, to add to the no column on the TSA section, those who say yes are arguing for more pat downs. That’s such an easy way to be touched where you don’t want to. I have the right to keep my body private. I agree that the 4th amendment protects us from electronic searches, and that those who argue yes are only slowly giving away their freedoms. One day they’ll wake up and realize that the government controls everything.

7 years ago
Reply to  Dave

And it’s the only comment smh. Personal privacy is more important tho, if we give it up for national security, we will likely lose both. -Ben Franklin, In my own words

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