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.
Constitutional republic. (2008). Retrieved October 11, 2013 from http://www.reference.
Davis, D. (2012). To Tax or Not to Tax. Retrieved from http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/essays /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. wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324108204579022874091732470.html