Security and Liberty: The New Guns vs Butter?

Quinn Welsh

Two weeks ago my attention was drawn to a news story about a report that had been released on Wikileaks about the C.I.A. and the ways in which they are able to monitor and watch essentially every American citizen at will through our smartphones and technological devices. I’ve always been wary of intelligence agencies and the encroachment that they often have on people’s privacy, but this new information made me reconsider just how much liberty we as Americans really have. In an increasingly dangerous world, logic dictates that we must become increasingly secure in response to the vast number of potential threats that are emerging. However, Is it really possible to have both freedom and privacy in today’s unstable world? How much privacy and liberty are we as citizens willing to sacrifice in order to be safe, or at least have the illusion of safety? One of the government’s primary responsibilities is to ensure the peace and protection of its citizens, but this responsibility often times comes at the expense of the inalienable right to liberty. If this country wishes to stay true to its democratic roots and avoid the violation of rights that occur in many autocratic countries, liberty and natural rights protected by the Constitution need to come first.

In the fourth amendment of the Constitution our founding fathers stated “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…” Most Americans take these words to mean that everyone has the right to privacy and that that the only circumstances in which these rights may be violated is if there is probable cause for investigation. Many times, however, this constitutional right has been stripped away from the American people — usually during times of national crisis. After 9/11, for instance, security in the United States was revamped and heavily infringed on people’s rights. The wikileaks report that was issued just a few weeks ago contained thousands of pages about “sophisticated software tools and techniques used by the C.I.A to break into smartphones, computers, and internet connected television.” One report stated that “government services have managed to compromise both Apple and Samsung products”(NY Times). While these reports show clear violation of our constitutional rights to privacy and liberty, it’s important to consider that these methods are certainly a powerful tool in the fight against terror and in collecting intel on criminals. These C.I.A. techniques allow government agents to listen in on criminal conversations and help them to locate terrorist and other threats to our national security. With that said, the C.I.A. and other government agencies such as the FBI have many other ways to collect intelligence and protect this country, and it’s important to steer clear of violating the constitutional rights of Americans at all costs. People deserve the right to have privacy on the cell phones and computers in their home.

Often times when security is prioritized over the liberty of citizens a government will become tyrannical and overbearing. Unfortunately there have been numerous times in the world in just the past few centuries where security has trumped liberty, and lead to oppression of citizens. The KGB, for example, was a ruthless intelligence agency in the Soviet Union that spied and monitored people in their nation through the use of satellite and other illegal espionage devices. The KGB were undoubtedly effective in obtaining the information that they needed, yet their interrogation tactics included various types of torture, and they completely violated the rights of their own citizens. This increased security occurred during the cold war in an attempt to protect the Soviet Union, but the effects were oppressive and even abusive in some cases to citizens.

Even in our own nation we have seen how liberty can be violated when a national crisis prompts an increase in security. In the aftermath of 9/11, the government took drastic actions to prevent terrorism and protect the American people. The passage of the Homeland Security Act meant that “Private conversations could no longer be considered private. Library records, college applications, ethnic origin data, and even a person’s favorite color could all be considered by surveillance personnel and analyzed for risk possibilities, responsible for deterring any further attacks on American soil”. However, If the government did not make any changes in response to 9/11 people would have been as upset with the lack of safety as people do today who feel that their liberties have been violated by these measures. This begs the question of whether it’s even possible to increase security or liberty without restricting the other in some way. It’s inevitable that ensuring the security of millions of people will lead to less freedom, but it is vital that the amount of freedom that is infringed upon be as limited as possible.

As Ben Franklin once said “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”(NPR). Franklin was a firm believer that liberty must be preserved at all costs to prevent tyranny and oppression of the people. In an ideal world no one would have to sacrifice any liberties in order to be safe. Governments have struggled for years to strike a balance between security and protecting the liberties of individuals, but more often than not one comes at the expense of the other. It might not be too unreasonable to think that there shouldn’t be a choice between security and liberty at all. In order to feel secure Americans should not have to sacrifice their civil liberties. After the terrorist attacks in Paris last year, the chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board was quoted saying “I greatly appreciate the important contribution surveillance programs make to identifying terrorists and preventing future attacks. But as the 9/11 Commission noted in recommending the creation of the board, the choice between security and liberty is a false one. The Paris attacks were tragic, but we should take a deep breath before making hasty policy decisions and changing our surveillance laws”(CNN). As many Americans recognize, there are options that can be taken to secure our safety without drastically violating people’s civil liberties. The government is focusing on ways to limit their surveillance to potential threats and targets rather than all Americans. This is the route that lawmakers are trying to take, and will be necessary in order for America to uphold the values ideals of the constitution that make this country great.

With the war on terror and the increasing number of potential threats to national safety, it’s hard to imagine a nation ever crafting a perfect balance between security and liberty. However, “We have made real progress in balancing national security and privacy and civil liberties through the USA Freedom Act”(CNN). The United States government has taken the first step in trying to balance security and and liberty through this reform, which will limit the government’s ability to collect telephone and other private records. With the government’s continued efforts to protect people’s civil liberties, we will continue to come closer to being a nation that is both secure and free. Indeed, it is crucial that we are protected by our government from threats both from outside the country and from within. With that said, we must heed the warnings of our founding fathers and refuse to sacrifice our essential liberty in return for our security. On the surface It might not seem like there is much we can do as citizens to preserve our own liberties, and maybe that’s true to an extent. Even so, it’s important that we remember to always question whether our rights are truly being upheld by our government, and refuse to turn a blind eye to violation of our privacy. When a violation of liberty occurs it’s the responsibility of regular people to voice their objections and make their opinions heard through whatever public forum or platform is available to them.

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