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Privacy and Government Surveillance in the Twenty-First Century (Part 3)

January 13th, 2011

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The last two articles in this casebook argue the opposite view: that government surveillance needs careful oversight and should be more restricted and controlled. “Group Privacy and Government Surveillance of Religious Services” by Travis Dumsday appeared in the philosophical journal Monist, so he approaches the issue from an ethical perspective. Like Young, he agrees that government surveillance is necessary from a standpoint of security, but he emphasizes the moral aspect of surveillance: it involves a violation (loss of privacy) and may include deception and breach of trust (in the case of a federal agent pretending to be a member of a group). Because of these violations, surveillance requires a “fairly strong justification” if it is to be done without acting unethically (Dumsday 182). This justification must be in the form of a specific indication that a crime is occurring, like a tip from a member of the community. Blanket surveillance without probable cause, Dumsday states emphatically, is morally wrong.

The final article “The Snitch In Your Pocket – Law Enforcement is Tracking American’s Cell Phones in Real Time Without a Warrant” by Michael Isikoff, unlike the other three, is a news article and presents its argument for legal control of government surveillance in a very personal manner. He begins personalizing the issue by pointing out that most of America’s 277 million cell phone users are unaware that phone companies can track them. Newer phones contain a GPS (global positioning device), while the phone call itself is routed through towers that can be used to pinpoint the origin of the call. To show the extent of the problem, Isikoff quotes Al Gidari, a telecommunication lawyer for several wireless phone companies who says that his clients receive “thousands of requests per month” for cell phone data. The article concludes with a dialog between Justice Department lawyer Mike Eckenweiler and appeals-court judge Dolores Sloviter. The judge pointed out that some governments, like Iran, would use cell-phone data to track political protesters.

“Now, can the government assure us,” she pressed Eckenweiler, “that Justice would never use the provisions in the communications law to collect cell-phone data for such a purpose in the United States? ” […Eckenweiler] finally acknowledged, “Yes, your honor. It can be used constitutionally for that purpose. ” (Isiskoff 2).

That brief moment in court neatly makes Isikoff’s argument for him. The potential for abuse of this type of surveillance is great.

Looking toward the future, the issue of privacy and government surveillance will continue to grow in importance. New technologies will continue to present us with newer challenges. The Department of Defense is working to develop a Total Information Awareness Program which would use new surveillance and analysis systems to protect citizens from terrorism. When this system is completed, it will provide a computerized record of a person’s entire life, including vital statistics, medical, financial, email, Internet, phone and travel records (Fischer and Green 14). The implications of such a database and the potentials for crime prevention as well as abuse are enormous. While the articles in this casebook present different arguments from a variety of viewpoints, they all agree one point: the need for judicial oversight is imperative for balancing the right to privacy and government surveillance.

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