Government Surveillance of the American People Term Paper

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Big Brother Watches America

When Orson Wells wrote his famous novel about government surveillance taken to the extreme, the world he described seemed very unrealistic. However, at the turn of the new millenium, the world that he describes is not so different and it seems as if we are just one step away from the "thought police" knocking on the door. For some this gives them an extra-added element of security, but others see it as a serious infringement on their freedom.

Today, we are watched in a variety of ways. Every where you look, you see video cameras recording our every move. Wiretaps are frequent and devices that transmit over the air such as cell phones are easy targets for those trying to hone in on our private affairs. The government monitors our email and web surfing activities, our bank accounts, credit card accounts and almost anything else you can think of.

The idea of surveillance first arose through the works of Jeremy Benthem. He was the first to design a prison system where the prisoners would be watched from a central location, but the prisoners themselves would never know when or if they were being watched. In this manner, Benthem hoped to reduce the incidence of misbehavior by the threat of being watched. The prisoners would never know if they were being watched. Therefore the fear of getting caught was not worth the risk. This concept formed the basis for modern surveillance philosophy. The fear of getting caught would prevent the person from committing the act (, 2001).

Prior to September 11, 2001, the country maintained a level of awareness of the need for personal protection. However, most of the concern was for individual security such as against home invasions and theft. Any other government intervention was considered to be an invasion of privacy. After the events of September 11, people felt threatened on a different level. It was then that they became afraid of a new type of invasion, and this one they also felt on a personal level. September 11, 2001 made the idea of being watched seem more acceptable. After September 11, 2001, many states passed new laws concerning wire-tapping. Contrary to what would be expected, many of these laws put limits on how long conversations may be monitored (Morrison & Foerster, 2002).

The threat of terrorism far outweighs the concept of privacy and personal rights in most people's minds. Many people now see this as necessary inconvenience to keep the country safe. September, 11 changed the attitudes of the people about the right to privacy and the amount of intrusion that they would tolerate. The following research will weigh both sides of the issue.

There are two distinct sides to this issue. One side, the right, is vigorously touting the need for more surveillance. They stress the growing number of terrorist threats and America's need to be able to see it coming. The leftists feel that the terrorism is just an excuse to allow the government to enter into more surveillance activities. They feel that the individual should have the right to choose. They do not want increased intervention from the government. They feel that surveillance takes away our rights.

The question of whether surveillance is ethical or not is another key question in this issue. Most would agree that persons who have had a past history of criminal activity or actions that would harm others should be watched in some way. Afterall, these people have already proven themselves to be capable of untrustworthy acts. Most people do not have a problem with anti-theft video cameras in stores to protect the establishment from theft. It seems, that in the public eye, surveillance by an individual for their own protection is acceptable. It is only when the government does it to persons who are otherwise innocent individuals that an ethical question is raised.

Americans are accustomed to a high degree of individual rights, as opposed to many other countries in the world. It is one of the principles the country was founded upon. Prior to 9/11 many felt that the government did not have the right to monitor individual activity unless there was sufficient reason to do so, such as known dangerous activity. After 9/11 many feel that more government surveillance would give them extra-added protection against future similar attacks. However, this leads us to the questions, which arose from 9/11. Could more surveillance of private citizens prevented 9/11? Does the government have sufficient reason and evidence to support the idea of increased surveillance? The final question is, will more government surveillance actually help to curb future attacks, or will it make the attackers more secretive and better at what they do? These are the key questions surrounding the question of increased government surveillance and ones for which there is no easy answer.

Being watched does have a benefit. It is good to have someone to watch your back, especially in the event of more attempted attacks being broadcast on the news every day. The chance of begin caught with the increased security methods may deter some would-be terrorists from carrying out their plan. The government watches us to keep us safe and ensure that no one can pose a threat to this country or its citizens. Many people have devices in their car that will sense if something is wrong or it has been in a wreck and then it will automatically dial for help. This gives some people a sense of security and makes them feel safe. Other people object to the devices because it takes control away from the person. They feel as if someone is always "watching where they are going." This is the same two sides brought out by the surveillance issue.

According to Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the right to privacy is established in international law. The exact section of the law is found in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12 which states "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks"(Rotenberg, 2002).

UN Guidelines for the Regulation of Computerized Personal Data Files (1990) set out Fair Information Practices that recommend adoption of national guidelines to protect personal privacy. Appropriately, the UN Guidelines note that failure to follow these principles "may be specifically provided for when the purpose of the file is the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms of the individual concerned or humanitarian assistance" (Rotenberg, 2002). Many societies including those of Biblical Times considered this choice to be an important part of personal freedom. Most countries include a section about the right to privacy as a part of their constitution.

Many countries may have laws to protect a citizen's right to privacy, however, several countries, including the United States have found loop holes to get around their own privacy policies. It works like this. The U.S. has laws that prevent our government from officially monitoring our domestic phone lines. However, there is no law, which says that it cannot form an alliance with other countries such as Canada and England to monitor our phone lines and pass on what they find. By the same token, the U.S. monitors their phone lines and they have an information exchange. This alliance is called Echelon and is an agreement between the U.S. And several other countries to provide monitoring of its citizens and information exchange (KJOS, 2002). Similar agreements exist between Western nations as well.

The subject of monitoring Internet activity is a highly debated topic. Great Britain has a device capable of monitoring traffic between an ISP and personal computers. It will become mandatory very soon. This Great Britain and U.S. are already talking about an Echelon type agreement for between the two countries for the exchange of Internet related information. The technicality is that the U.S. is not monitoring the Internet activity of its citizens, Great Britain is doing the actual monitoring (KJOS, 2002).

Despite protests by private citizens, the U.S. already has technology to monitor the Internet activity of private citizens. It is called Carnivore and is being endorsed by the FBI. This system has been in place since the Clinton administration and is essentially a wiretap for the Internet. It is highly intrusive and has been essentially hidden from the public. This is an unpopular law, so the government has used its standard response when confronted about an unpopular decision. They created a crisis for which the new technology was needed and used to media to distribute propaganda (KJOS, 2002)

The private citizen has many threats against their privacy. They come from technological-based devices. Without technology, remote surveillance could not become a reality. There are three characteristics of surveillance technology used to describe its various aspects. They are amplification, reutilization, and sublimation.

Amplification is the ability of…[continue]

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