The question whether tradeoff for privacy is worth the loss of security and convenience is not without controversy. This paper will focus in detail on the limitations on privacy imposed for national security considerations. More specifically, this paper will evaluate the provisions of the U.S. Patriot Act that restrict citizens’ privacy.
The Act, passed after the 9/11 attacks, authorizes law enforcement agencies to gain access to private telephone, business and financial records without prior judicial approval in the cases of suspected terrorism and espionage.
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From one perspective, this is a reasonable restriction on privacy. Given that terrorism is an imminent threat to American homeland security, the state has the obligation to protect its citizens from this threat, even if it involves limiting their rights to a certain degree. Under the theory of the social contract, citizens agree to surrender a portion of their personal autonomy to the stare in return for law enforcement and other public services. Thus, the state has the right restrict certain rights on behalf of the citizens and acting in their interests.
The efficiency of the Patriot Act can be empirically proven by the fact that no major terrorist attack on the U.S. has happened after the 9/11. Another way to legitimize privacy restrictions imposed by the Patriot Act is by arguing that the Act targets specifically terrorists and criminals without having a significant impact on common citizens. Obviously, U.S. law enforcement agencies do not have the ability to monitor all correspondence and conversations, therefore they collect data only in cases when there are firm grounds to believe that a suspicious activity is taking place.
Law-obedient citizens are unlikely to be impacted by this Act in any direct way.
However, the opponents of the Patriot Act claim that it grants too much power to law enforcement agencies. It can be a beginning of a dangerous slippery slope that will eventually lead to the establishment of a 1984-like police state. A justice department audit has already revealed that the FBI is misusing the Act to secretly collect private information from citizens. The report concluded the following:
‘We believe the improper or illegal uses we found involve serious misuses of national security letter authorities’ (Guardian, 2007).
Another concern associated with governmental restrictions on privacy is connected with the possibility of data leakage. While this scenario can be regarded as highly improbable, a theoretical possibility of such a development should be acknowledged. Sensitive personal or financial information stored in governmental databases can be used against certain individuals or corporate groups. In a world where access to information and positive public image have become determinants of success, there is always a chance that a corrupt official is lured into selling such information, or hackers succeed in gaining unauthorized access to private data.
Therefore, it is possible to conclude that sometimes privacy can be compromised for the sake of security of convenience; however, a careful cost-benefit analysis should be done prior to the imposition of any limitations on privacy.—————————————————————————–
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