Global Ethics Corner: Weighing Privacy Against National Security

June 17, 2013

On June 5, the British newspaper The Guardian disclosed a secret court order requiring Verizon telecom to hand over customer data to the U.S. National Security Agency [NSA]. In an effort to identify national security threats, the NSA is collecting records of all the millions of phone calls made through Verizon, including a list of numbers dialed, each call's duration, and the location from which each call is made.

Soon after, new leaks revealed that a number of internet firms, including Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, have collaborated with the NSA to streamline government access to users' private data. By doing so they have eliminated the NSA's need for court orders and warrants, effectively making the agency accountable to no one but itself.

Civil rights groups argue that warrantless access to personal data is a reason for concern. The right to privacy should only be overridden when doing so is imperative to national security. Given unrestricted access, the NSA is unlikely to set a sufficiently high bar for using it. Moreover, some worry that fears of surveillance may stifle free speech—dissenters may decide not to speak out against injustice, for fear of attracting unwanted attention.

President Obama noted that "You can’t have 100 percent security . . . 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience." More generally, many argue that those with nothing to hide have no reason for concern. Having some information stored on a government server is a small price to pay for protection against terrorism, especially since we voluntarily hand over information about ourselves all the time. Besides, why would the government care to look through the phone records, emails, and Facebook profiles of ordinary citizens, even if they have access to them?

What do you think? How should governments weigh privacy concerns against national security? Can governments be trusted to act responsibly when collecting data about their citizens?

By Andreas Rekdal

For more information see:

Joshua Foust, Jameel Jaffer, and Eric Posner, "Secrecy and Freedom," The New York Times, June 10, 2013.

Glenn Greenwald, "NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily," The Guardian, June 5, 2013.

Timothy B. Lee, "Everything you need to know about the NSA's phone records scandal," The Washington Post, June 6, 2013.

The New York Times, "Obama on Surveillance, Then and Now," The New York Times, June 7, 2013.

James Ball, "NSA's Prism Surveillance program: how it works and what it can do," The Guardian, June 8, 2013.

Photo credits in order of appearance:
Nick Sarebi
Eric Hauser
National Security Agency [also for picture 12]
Charlie Foster
Erik Aldrich
Adam Polselli
Linh Nguyen
Mohammad Jangda
Tangi Bertin
David King
Marsmettnn Tallahassee [also for picture 20]
Light Brigading
White House
Thomas Hawk
Jonas Seaman
Adam Koford

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