In the wake of the devastating terrorist attacks on US soil in Orlando and San Bernardino, Americans have asked themselves what they could have done to help prevent them. Of course, many in the federal government have an idea for what we can do. It is an unfortunate but an expected tradition for politicians to exploit tragedy to advance their own political agenda. Since 9/11, we have seen many in the government push for increased surveillance of American citizens as the answer to terrorist threats. And with that narrative comes the idea that the right to privacy is only a barrier to that objective. But is this idea really true? Does the individual right to privacy threaten the safety of America?
It’s a common perspective that the right to privacy hinders the government’s ability to protect the people. And, to be fair, these claims carry a fair amount of truth. Crucial information and collaboration between terrorists can be found online, hidden within the vast reserves of the Internet. Without the barrier of the personal right to privacy, the government could potentially mass collect data to ideally prevent acts of violence before they happen. But the flaw in this strategy lies within the problem itself. In demanding accessibility to the data stored by each and every American, the federal government loses its efficiency in finding potential threats. Not only does it violate the basic liberties of Americans, but mass data collection just doesn’t work. In a time-pressed scenario like preventing a potential terrorist attack or murder plot, sifting through so much bulk information to find clues giving days or even hours of warning is unrealistic. We simply don’t have the resources to uncover relevant information fast enough to make an impact.
But the ineffective nature of bulk data collection isn’t merely a hypothetical idea. In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency have been doing it for years. For example, the infamous Section 215 of the 2001 Patriot Act gave the federal government the power to collect “tangible things” relevant to investigation. Naturally, they’ve used this clause to justify some very controversial methods of accessing personal information. In December of 2013, a White House review panel analyzed the effectiveness of an NSA surveillance policy secretly storing phone and email data from US citizens. The results were shocking to the team and even to many in the federal government. According to panel member Geoffrey Stone in an interview with NBC, “the results were very thin.” And as reported by the panel, “there has been no instance in which NSA could say with confidence that the outcome [of a terror investigation] would have been any different.” The surprising inconclusiveness of these findings just shows that despite what politicians tell us, collecting private information from American citizens is simply ineffective.
However, government efforts to collect the data of American citizens are not just unsuccessful at preventing potential terrorist attacks. In fact, when it comes to demanding information on an individual level, they can be outright dangerous. After all, the very same systems of technology we trust to protect us, if not properly secured, can actually be a serious threat to personal safety. In today’s world, phones, tablets, laptops, and computers are an essential part of our lives. Companies like Google and Facebook build virtual profiles for all of their users from their vast reserves of stored personal information. These devices record our private conversations, passwords, financial information, contacts, location, photos, and more- all for our personal convenience. Yet with that ease comes the increased threat of losing all of it. As Americans grow more and more reliant on technology, protecting that personal data from hackers grows increasingly important. A criminal that gets a hold of your personal information can steal your identity, credit cards, and ultimately threaten your safety and security.
To counter that threat, encryption and other forms of security help to prevent any hackers from getting access to personal information. But when the government demands accessibility to otherwise protected data, bypassing encryption and standard security measures, they can leave a dangerous trail that hackers can exploit. For example, after the San Bernardino attack, the FBI demanded Apple build a ‘backdoor’ into their iPhones. This would have Apple construct a “master key” that could bypass local security and encryption on any device. Not only would this make brute force hacking attempts vastly easier. In truth, anyone that acquires knowledge of how to reconstruct the “key” could overcome the encryption on any iPhone, potentially unlocking the private information on hundreds of millions of phones. And as Apple announced in its customer letter, “once a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge.” This proposed ‘solution’ of the federal government to reinforce national security has disastrous consequences. Endangering the safety and security of any American with an electronic device hardly strengthens national security.
Additionally, when politicians assume that they can bypass the personal right to security for data collection, they conveniently ignore a crucial question. Is violating the right of privacy even justified by national security? Many in the federal government seem to think so. As long as there is a possibility that helpful information could be uncovered, it is argued, that sole possibility trumps personal liberty. However, this rash justification has alarming implications. It argues that your individual rights and liberties only extend as far as the potential to do something dangerous with them. Yet your individual rights are not determined by the behavior of others. We don’t restrict the freedom of speech just because somebody can shout fire in a crowded theater or can say something offensive. We don’t take away due process of law so we can more quickly prosecute certain criminals. Yet why do we consider abandoning our right to privacy just because some could theoretically have information worth finding? Personal information is no more open for surveillance just because it conveniently lies in the palm of your hand. Every American is guaranteed the liberty of privacy from the federal government through the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. And that should not end because of the actions of criminals and terrorists.
While abandoning our right to privacy can potentially provide limited assistance, it is hardly a worthwhile strategy. Federal policies collecting bulk personal data of Americans have proven to be ineffective, failing to actually do their job of preventing terrorist attacks. And the government asking for a “key” to unlock personal information on an individual basis sets a dangerous precedent for individual safety. If hackers got a hold of the knowledge on how to recreate that opening, they could bypass the encryption on any device, endangering the financial stability and personal safety of Americans everywhere. Additionally, sacrificing personal liberty in the name of security is an extremely dangerous position. Individual freedom is not malleable or conditional because of the behavior of others. Overall, the right to privacy is an extremely important freedom in the United States, and securing it is not a threat to national security.