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Privacy and Government Surveillance in the Twenty-First Century (Part 2)

January 13th, 2011

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The development of photographic film by George Eastman and scientists at Kodak in 1888 made the previously cumbersome development of photographs available to the masses. The camera was now available for use in surveillance and the photograph as evidence in the courtroom. Once Alexander Bell’s telephone, invented in 1877, became the norm in every household and office, it was now possible for another person to surreptitiously eavesdrop on previously private communications.

The modern electronic computer began as an entirely mechanical machine that came into use in response to a particular problem of the U. S. Government in the 1890’s. Prior to that decade, the immense growth of industry and a rapidly changing population due to immigration made effective national government a challenge. (Agar 147. The 1880 census had taken 7 years to tabulate by hand, and it was expected that the 1980 census would take even longer. In response to a competition announced by the census director, Herman Hollerith offered a machine that would sort and tally information stored as holes punched into cards. Finally, in 1971, Intel Corporation developed the microprocessor, an entire computer on one small integrated circuit or chip which made the personal computer and the Internet possible. Thanks to the ubiquitous use of computers in business and government, the police are now able to instantly track the use of a credit card, for example.

The issue of privacy and government surveillance is controversial and generates heated emotional debate because of the potential for great harm. Lack of security can result in injury, loss of property, and ultimately death. Intrusion of privacy can inflict emotional distress and destroy reputations, relationships and careers. The following four articles each highlight one aspect of the delicate balance between privacy and security and present an argument somewhere between granting government greater latitude in providing security or instituting tighter controls for protecting privacy.

The most neutral approach is presented in Orin S. Kerr’s “Do We Need A New Fourth Amendment? ” This article was written as a response to Christopher Slobogin’s book Privacy at Risk: The New Government Surveillance and the Fourth Amendment. Slobogin argues that two types of surveillance are currently unregulated by the Fourth Amendment: public, such as closed circuit television, and transactional, which he defines as access to bank, telephone and business records. Slobogin’s proposed changes to the amendment depend on the degree of the intrusiveness of the surveillance. Whenever current law does not address a particular situation, Slobogin believes that the courts should turn to public opinion surveys to determine how intrusive any surveillance would be. Kerr argues that making legal proceedings dependent on public opinion weakens the law and that “measuring intrusiveness does not actually measure how much a [surveillance] technique infringes on civil liberties” (Kerr 959). Ultimately, Kerr concludes that the Fourth Amendment as it exists is more than adequate to the task of protecting civil liberties.

Where the first article argues for the status quo from a legal perspective, the second argues for acceptance of government surveillance from a political point of view. What makes Cathy Young’s article “Liberty’s Paradoxes” especially interesting is that it admits a libertarian bias but argues the conservative viewpoint that government surveillance of private communication is necessary to protect citizens from the grave threat of terrorism. Young states unequivocally that she doesn’t “like the idea of government snooping on e-mail or keeping track of Web addresses…” However, she concludes that to address the potential for abuse of information, “…we need to recognize that…surveillance of private communication is indeed a legitimate government activity” (Young 3).

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