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National Security vs Privacy

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Michelle Hernandez, Staff Writer

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Privacy today faces growing threats from a growing surveillance apparatus that is often justified in the name of national security.

Americans have long been divided in their views about security needs and personal privacy, with much of the focus being on government surveillance. Numerous government agencies including, the National Security Agency (NSA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and state and local law enforcement agencies intrude upon the private communications of unimpeachable citizens.

Under two successive administrations, new laws, policies and corporate practices have made it much easier for government agencies to track and access citizens’ private digital communications from their storage, than it is for agents to search or monitor our physical homes, offices, vehicles, and mail.

The government’s collection of this sensitive information is itself an invasion of privacy. After hearing about the U.S government’s surveillance programs, many have changed their behavior because of it.  Fully 87% of Americans are aware of the federal surveillance programs; among those aware of the programs, 25% and 22% of adults say they have changed the way they use technology at least somewhat after the Snowden revelations, while In spring 2014, 74% of Americans said they should not give up privacy and freedom for the sake of safety.

In the Internet age, it is inevitable that corporations and government agencies will have access to detailed information about people’s lives. We willingly share personal information with companies for the convenience of using their products. We accept that a certain amount of surveillance is necessary in order to protect innocent people from crime and terror.

As a nation we have failed to address the resulting dilemma: How do we prevent the abuse of the power we have willingly delegated to government and companies?

While the federal government is required by law to document publicly its wiretapping of phone lines, it is not required to do so with Internet communications. Over 50,000 National Security Letters, a kind of administrative demand letter requiring no probable cause or judicial oversight, are issued each year. Yet we know few details: Companies complying with these secret letters were barred from even informing customers about them until 2009 when Nick Merrill, an entrepreneur who ran a small New York-based Internet service company, successfully enlisted the help of the ACLU in challenging a blanket gag provision of the Patriot Act.

In Congress, debates about surveillance cross party lines. The Patriot Act and FISA Amendments Act have staunch supporters as well as fierce opponents among Republicans, Democrats, and independents. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act of 2011, which exempts companies from liability for sharing data with the government, is one of several bills introduced in Congress last year that civil liberties groups and in this case even the White House warn will lead to further erosion of consumer privacy.

Though not explicitly stated in the Constitution, privacy is a fundamental right held by all Americans. Privacy infringements are usually the harbinger of additional civil rights violations. When we cede the right to privacy, or even remain silent when given a diminished version of it, we declare to the nation that we are insouciant and seek no change.

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