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Nov 5 / Joanna Sturgeon

National Security Policy and Privacy Rights

Written by Joanne DePastino

The government’s information policy regarding national security has recently intersected each person’s right to privacy. Earlier this year a government contractor, Edward Snowden, told the world that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting cell phone and e-mail data from millions of Americans. Originally, this program, founded under the Protect America Act, was limited to gathering only foreign intelligence (Gorman & Valentino-Devries, 2013). In its quest to stop terrorist attacks, the agency broadened its net. Unfortunately, this expansion has resulted in the gathering of domestic cell phone and e-mail data in addition to foreign data. All people agree that the government’s main role is to keep its citizens safe. Under national debate is the lengths it can go to achieve it. Some think we must be willing to sacrifice a little freedom in order to give the government the tools it needs to stop another 9/11. Others believe individual privacy trumps national security and cites the fourth amendment that protects citizens from unreasonable searches. Since the Constitution is the bedrock of our government and our laws, whatever actions the government takes in the name of security must still fall under its purview.

The United States was founded as a constitutional republic; existing constitutional law binds elected representatives of the people, limiting the power of the government over its citizens (Constitutional republic, 2008). Our founding fathers reacted to England’s misuse of power, as demonstrated through unrepresented taxation and punitive laws (Davis, 2012). The colonists’ healthy fear of government power and corruption led them to establish a system centered on the protection of individual rights.

These rights are limited and they are not absolute. Checks and balances built into the government allow it to execute its national security duty while being mindful of the rights of citizens. The fourth amendment does not say the government cannot search. Rather, the searches have to be “reasonable”. The NSA has overstepped its constitutional authority not because the foreign intelligence gathering exists, but rather due to the scope of the data gathered. Daily news articles demonstrate the need to gather intelligence. It is “reasonable” to assume that more terrorist plots are being conceived and the government must be diligent to discover them. However, these same articles consistently point to evidence of links between terrorists in the United States and terrorist cells in the Middle East. This justifies searches of cell phone and e-mail activity to and from foreign destinations only. Since it is not “reasonable” to search the domestic information of citizens, we can conclude that every American whose domestic calls and e-mails were captured by the NSA had their fourth amendment rights violated.

It may take considerable time and resources to create a system that simultaneously provides adequate surveillance while respecting every citizens’ right to liberty and privacy but it is the government’s only legal and moral recourse. A famous quote by Benjamin Franklin sums it up, “They, who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” (Franklin, 1818). Though he wrote those words in the late 18th century, the sentiment is very relevant today.

Works Cited

Constitutional republic. (2008). Retrieved October 11, 2013 from http://www.reference.
com /browse/constitutional+republic?s=t

Davis, D. (2012). To Tax or Not to Tax. Retrieved from /before-1800/to-tax-or-not-to-tax/
Franklin, B. (1818). Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin. London, England: H. Colburn.

Gorman, S., & Valentino-Devries, J. (2013). New Details Show Broader NSA Surveillance Reach. The Wall Street Journal Online. Retrieved from http://online.


  1. Isidoro Alastra / Nov 17 2013

    To look at this we really need to see what the government’s definition of ‘reasonable’ is. One could argue that it’s reasonable to suspect that millions of Americans could be involved in some way in some hidden terrorist plot. That’s not to say millions of Americans are terrorists, but perhaps that examining patterns in big data gathered from millions of Americans’ email and cell phone communications could reveal insights that would help identify, mitigate, or prevent terrorist activity before it happens. Collecting data may not be so bad if they use the data responsibly. I wouldn’t object to having my emails or cell phone transmissions data mined for keywords like “terrorism,” “bomb,” or “weapons.” I wouldn’t even mind if they read my e-mails if they found these words in them to find some context or clues, or could point to a security policy that governs when they check communications for clues to justify it.

    What I would mind is if they started reading all my emails or text messages for fun, or started witch hunts on people for non-terrorist related private information they find. Unfortunately they do not tell us how they use the data, or when they clearly cross that line. And if they did, terrorists could use that information to mislead the security agents away from threats which would entirely defeat the purpose of the NSA to begin with.

    It’s a very complicated issue.

  2. Kim Wiljanen / Nov 13 2013

    Governmental spying on citizens is not a new phenomenon. It has happened repeatedly over the course of time. In 1920, there was the communist scare and it was tied with a growing union movement. Repression and censorship during the late 1930s and early 1940s brought libraries into conflict with the government. In the 1950s there was massive campaign led by Joseph McCarthy against socialist and led to blacklisting of citizens as communists. In the 1970s, the CIA was keeping files on student dissidents and the illegal Nixon wiretaps of the 1970s. In all cases, the government was keeping tabs on people that they felt could be enemies, and played on national fears.

    The only thing that has changed is the technology that increasingly makes spying on people easier to do. And is increasingly more comprehensive as we go mobile. The rationale for it is always couched in terms of the public good against an unseen enemy and is accepted largely as a trade off for security.

    This is the legacy of two documents that have had a long lasting effect for most librarians. We know them as the Library Bill of Rights which was initially written by Forrest Spaulding in 1938 and the Patriot Act of 2001.

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