The True Cost of National Security: Our Privacy Online

Chris Hillen

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Civil liberties and individual rights have long been prized possessions of the American people, from the formation of the U.S. Constitution to the ratification of the 19th amendment. While this ideology hasn’t changed throughout multiple centuries, the mediums in which we express ourselves have dramatically, and the rise of the Internet Age has given way to even more areas in which the lines between privacy and security are continually blurred.

In the 21st century, numerous acts of violent foreign and domestic terrorism have plagued the United States, from the tragedy of the September 11 Attacks in 2001 to the recent Poway Synagogue Shooting in California this past April. In an attempt to prevent future atrocities, the federal government has repeatedly implemented legislation meant to expand the powers of the government and national security agencies to investigate potential terrorist threats to the United States, digitally.

While this may seem like a no-brainer proposition to protect Americans from future harm, the threat of becoming a more authoritarian, Big Brother society is just as relevant and possibly has more bearing on the wider majority of Americans. With the signing of the USA Patriot Act directly after the September 11 Attacks, the government’s investigative abilities in the area of telecommunications were greatly expanded, allowing them to engage in wiretapping, email monitoring, and collection of private information for the purpose of detecting terrorists.

Numerous extensions to the act’s many provisions have been signed by the Bush and Obama administrations that allow for unjust intrusions on the privacy of American citizens to continue. Several of the act’s provisions were even deemed unconstitutional in a 2007 Supreme Court case entitled Doe v. Gonzales that ruled they violated portions of the 1st, 5th, and 9th amendments relating to the privacy guaranteed to all Americans by the Bill of Rights.

In this debate, the numbers are a very important part of the story. The Cato Institute found that between 2008-2015 the chance of being killed in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil was 1 in 30.1 million. Although each of these instances are extremely tragic and should be prevented, the proportionally small amount of people affected by them does not necessitate the sweeping government reforms that have been enacted that jeopardize the privacy of millions of American citizens.

So, how does the complex topic of privacy vs. security on the internet concern teenagers? According to a Pew Research Center 2018 study, a whopping 45% of teens said they were online “almost constantly”, making this demographic the most active internet users out of any other age group in America. With such a large amount of teenagers and high schoolers accessing the internet each day, it is important to know what information the government can collect and where our right to privacy as individuals stands in the digital age.

The solution to this debate is not a simple one and is dependent on whether the civil liberty of privacy or the notion of complete security is more of a priority in a world where many of our interactions take place on the Internet. However, if the U.S. government commits to keeping public and private data in separate databases, maintaining transparent privacy policies, and narrowing data searches to pinpoint only suspected terrorists, our rights can remain intact while still allowing justice to be served in the way of counterterrorism.

In an age where constitutional rights are constantly under attack by sensationalized media stories and radical extremists, American citizens, teenagers especially, should remain steadfast in sticking up for their right to privacy that our Founding Fathers bestowed upon us. Knowing the limits of government in collecting our private information and exercising caution online are important things to consider whenever we have the privilege of using the Internet and hopefully, governmental security organizations can learn to do the same.

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