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In the wake of the rise of the digital age and an immense series of terrorist tragedies across the world, we try to find solutions to prevent them from happening, since one life lost due to crime and violence is already too many. In an effort to try to nip these issues in the bud, we use policy and technology as tools at our disposal. However, a common unintended consequence of using policy to stop crimes before they start is that it has the potential to restrict other liberties such as privacy. With advances in technology, surveillance has become increasingly advanced and pervasive. However, if it is doing something to keep us safe, how far should we go to prioritize safety over liberty?
According to the Pew Research Center, us Americans are not quite sure how to feel about security and privacy even when it comes to keeping us safe. While we tend to fluctuate towards feeling that anti-terrorist measures don’t go far enough, between 2013 and 2014, the survey switched to saying that anti-terrorist measures went too far (It should be noted in this case that this dip was in the wake of Edward Snowden’s statements regarding the government’s collecting of personal data). The sentiment would immediately switch after the tragedy at San Bernadino. However, in regard to what law enforcement should do, most people draw the line at intervention into personal lives (Pew Research). For instance, 57% of those surveyed were in favor of national ID cards as of August 2011, but only 29% were in favor of the government monitoring personal communications such as emails or phone calls. We also tend to not want to be surveilled while also wanting to surveil everybody else (Pew Research). For instance, 57% of those surveyed said it was unacceptable for the government to monitor an American citizen, but 54% said that it was acceptable to monitor citizens of other countries. 82% said that it would be acceptable to monitor terrorist suspects as well. We also try to take steps to hide ourselves on the internet to keep ourselves from being watched; in fact, 86% of those surveyed said they had taken steps. This data points to an interesting story. The idea of security versus privacy is a debate that even the citizens of the United States have complicated feelings about. We want to feel protected and allow the government to take steps to proactively stop crime from happening, yet we also don’t want to be tracked by government entities or allow strangers to peep into our private lives.
We already take steps to try to proactively prevent danger. One of the most pervasive and infamous examples of proactive measures is the TSA security in airport lines. According to a leaked TSA report, investigators have managed to sneak 95% of its bombs and weapons through airport security (LA Times). The theory of airport security would be that those who intend to commit a crime in an airport or attempt to get past security would be deterred from doing so. The idea is not to stop the crime; it is to proactively deter potential criminals using a show of security. However, does it work? According to the US Department of State, the amount of airports targeted worldwide dropped by 60% between 2014 and 2015 (US Department of State). Countries such as Iraq and Turkey have more intensive airport security provisions, including not being allowed to pull up curbside to the airport (Business Insider). In fact, Bagdhad’s airport requires people to pull up 4 miles away from the airport and have a special taxi drive them over to the airport, and both Turkey and Brussels requires dropoffs about 1 mile from the main airport. Fascinatingly enough, airport security may have had an effect on crime, though it is not in the way that one may logically assume. One may assume that the actual searching of bags is having a direct effect on crime, but it is actually a psychological effect in that it deters potential criminals. Where do we stand now if such a breach of privacy does its job, even if its job is not directly related to the contents of the whatever is being searched? We are being made to go through invasive procedures at airports so that terrorists would be psyched out to not target an airport.
During this tumultuous time of privacy, security, and violence, we are still trying to figure out where we stand. It seems that Americans are unsure how to feel about where this balance falls. When a tragedy happens, we want to make sure that this never happens again. However, we do crave a level of privacy when it comes to personal matters such as phone calls or emails. While we still have this running debate, we have taken controversial steps such as advanced airport security. The next question then would be whether or not these breaches in privacy are worth the exchange for security. Where is the median in regard to how much we can control others in the interest of keeping us safe? As technology advances, we will surely have to face these questions and consider where this line is.