Oct 3, 2018 in Sociology

Balancing American interests between national security and individual privacy is a daunting task that does not promise an agreeable solution in the near future. There are so many controversies surrounding this issue in which people with opposing opinions are striving to ensure that their voices are heard. The question of which of the two should be prioritized is not important compared to the effect that pursuing either of the strategies will have in the lives of citizens. The issue is complicated further by the sensitive nature of both national security and individual privacy. There is a close association between the two, thus making it hard for policy makers to alter either of them without touching the other. However, it is a fact that as much as many people want to have full rights to individual privacy, they also expect to have their security guaranteed. In other words, the two must be provided without necessarily causing one side to gain too much of an upper hand. Yet it seems increasingly obvious in the wake of 9/11 and the War on Terror that national security has been prioritized to some extent compared to individual privacy, and that the erosion of civil liberties that has occurred has gained some measure of acceptance by the majority of the population.

Legal status of Individual Privacy vs. National Security

Controversies surrounding national security and individual privacy came into the limelight after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. However, this issue has been in existence for a much longer time, though mostly has had minimal effects on individual privacy, with some exceptions such as the suspension of habeas corpus in the Civil War, and the rise of McCarthyism in the 1950’s. The 9/11 attacks are responsible for today’s ongoing debate regarding what security measures should be implemented to ensure that another disaster doesn’t occur. The period of inflamed passion and rhetoric immediately following 9/11 led the U.S. Congress to pass the United States of America Patriot Act (The Data Base Book, 2010). The act gave security personnel the legal footing to search for and apprehend terrorist suspects. Pointed arguments occurred when the Patriot Act was introduced, with proponents arguing that it was indispensable to protect citizens first and foremost following such a major event, and that individual privacy concerns were a secondary issue. On the other hand, opponents were equally vocal, asserting that the act’s passage would violate civil rights that are protected by the Constitution. In other words, they claimed that the Patriot Act and similar laws were illegal. Individual privacy is a constitutional right, especially in American society (Mitrano, 2003). However, while this is true, other views have recently ascertained that individual privacy cannot be enjoyed without security. This view holds that national security carries more weight compared to individual privacy despite the legal assertions that are more traditional interpretations of the Constitution.

Although proponents of individual privacy cite the constitutional provision that recognizes civil rights, they may be mistaken. The United States Constitution does not identify privacy as a civil right. This is because the word privacy is not even in the Constitution (The Data Base Book, 2010). Therefore, it seems incorrect to claim that the Constitution guarantees individual privacy. It also gives the government a legal avenue to introduce laws such as the Patriot Act. From this point of view, security becomes a common need that everyone is entitled to. Therefore, national security outweighs personal goals and deserves to be the top priority.

Professional Evidence

In research study conducted among information technology experts in 2008, it was evident that national security received strong backing compared to individual privacy. In this study, 53% of 474 IT experts were of the opinion that national security was paramount in the states. This view was bolstered further by the fact that 69% of federal, state, and local IT security agencies cited that identity management was critical (Jones, 2008). They indicated that management of individual identity is particularly valuable as far as the life of the entire population is concerned. The loosening of previous protocols preventing such measures from being enacted would ensure that security organs would be able to track suspects and possibly prevent a significant security threat. Management of this information does not involve any sharing at a public level, implying that the information obtained by any agencies conducting such cyber sorties is confidential. This is, perhaps, why 45% of the experts believed that funding for this security measure would increase compared to a paltry 5% who believed otherwise.

Effects on International Relations

Preference to national security over individual privacy is also illustrated by the strong views expressed by the United States government. The United States and the European Union have engaged each other in formal negotiations exonerating visiting European Union tourists from the anti-terror measures passed by the United States (Homeland Security, 2011). The EU seeks to secure an umbrella agreement that will ensure that its citizens are not subjected to critical surveillance. Counteracting this compromise with the European Union, the United States is in the process of making it mandatory that all foreign airlines submit personal information on its passengers. This is aimed at preventing terrorists from entering the country. The United States continues to show that it is not willing to make any compromises in regards to national security, and this position shows that the Department of Homeland Security is as insistent on this position today as the previous administration was. This is because U.S. policy continues to hold that when national security is guaranteed, individual security is guaranteed too.

National security is not only valued in the United States. Trends in other parts of the world also tend to show that it is given priority in comparison to individual privacy, with many countries enacting laws that seek to put national security first in recent years. However, in Canada, there is some opposition to the idea of allowing access to personal information for security purposes. Bill C-36 changed data retention schemes in the national data bank (Macklem, 2001). The bill also gave judges the power to prohibit access to or withhold disclosure of personal information, whether in favor of national security, national defense, or any foreign relations issue. The fundamentals of this bill are meant to ensure that there is accountability in security agencies and that protection of civil rights is guaranteed. Therefore, the case is a little bit different in Canada when it comes to government accountability measures. However, personal information is still subject to access by security personnel in certain instances where there is an overriding national interest. Although the two provisions are conflicting, preference for national security is evident, because a major security threat will automatically allow for the probing of potential suspects. This scenario can be summarized by acknowledging that while Canada has adopted a more pro-privacy stance than the United States, its citizens have still shown more concern when it comes to national security interest in recent years.

Additional Security and Privacy Implications

In addition to previously raised concerns, there are many other issues on the table that continue to rile those on both sides of the privacy vs. security debate. The rights of those classified as “enemy combatants,” meaning those in opposition to the United States fighting under an organizational, rather than national banner, remain in limbo following a 2004 Supreme Court decision that muddied rather than clarified the issue (Massimino & Cover, 2006). While the Bush administration pledged that only foreign citizens could be classified in such a manner, the most recent defense appropriations budget gives the president the right to hold U.S. citizens indefinitely if they are suspected of being “enemy combatants.” While President Obama has pledged vigorously that he would never personally use the provision, there isn’t absolute certainty that he or a future chief executive wouldn’t find the impotence to do so in a potentially risky situation.


In addition to the Patriot Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) gives the U.S. Government broad new powers when it comes to overseeing the actions of its own citizens. The act establishes a “secret court” that allows for the tapping of phone lines without a regular warrant, in instances where there is a potential threat to national security (Massimino & Cover, 2006). Contrary to what the act’s name would imply, Americans aren’t necessarily excluded from warrantless wiretapping. It claims that in times of war, the president has the authority to authorize surveillance of even American citizens, and is allowed to bypass the usual constitutional requirements in order to do so. As time has passed, support for the Patriot Act and FISA has slightly waned, yet Congress still hasn’t taken action to repeal or scale back the measures.

Perhaps most significant in the recent preference for privacy over individual privacy is the power that the legislative branch ceded to the executive branch in the wake of 9/11. Many of the provisions of the Patriot Act, including the potential opening of citizens’ mail and monitoring of library records are left entirely to the executive to authorize, while the government has claimed that the Congressional passage of FISA allows the president and executive branch to obtain warrantless wiretaps. Furthermore, Congressional approval of the Iraq War has arguably been used as a carte blanche excuse for the executive branch to pursue foreign actions that would have previously been deemed illegal, such as the recent air war against Libya, and strikes in the western tribal areas of Pakistan.  

Indiscriminate and Intrusive Nature of Preference to National Security

As common as the national security vs. individual privacy argument has become in recent years, technological advancements may just dictate the direction we continue to head in. It is now possible for various security agents to access private information online without the consent of the information’s owners. This means that the observance of private data or even individual surveillance is possible with the involved people remaining oblivious of what is happening to them. According to Dr. Clarke of the Australian National University, the 9/11 assault on the United States is what has made this possible (Quiddington, 2001). Further emphasis on this is made by the fact that information technology can be used to survey people effectively for security reasons. However, Dr. Clarke is pessimistic that technology and the attacks on the United States should be used as a scapegoat to advocate extremely intrusive techniques. This can be rationalized by the fact the there are centralized information systems that can analyze information and lead to security actions if necessary. According to Clarke, security agents may lose focus and start monitoring all of us, contrary to what current policies say. This would lead to a future in which everybody would be virtually monitored.

Such a potential situation would be even be worse for foreigners visiting the United States, implying that every tourist will be treated as a potential suspect. This would be likely to cause confusion in the name of fighting terrorism. Furthermore, privacy may be compromised very much this way; however, it could be argued that the overall effect is the nation will be safer. Citizens would then be able to exercise their right to privacy if security threats are eliminated, although they may be inconvenienced in the interim.

Another notable weakness with compromising individual security for national security is that personal information may get into the wrong hands (Quiddington, 2001). It is evident that not all security agencies are state-owned. Some are private, and thus their abilities to handle intelligence information are questionable. Therefore, caution should be taken when giving licenses for such operations in order to ensure that safety is maintained. Otherwise, the whole issue of favoring national security over individual privacy may go belly up if stringent precautionary structures are not put in place.

In conclusion, individual privacy is fundamental, and everyone deserves this right. Despite that, it seems that the security regulations put in place over ten years ago are here to stay. Those who were hopeful that a new Democratic administration would overturn many of the provisions that arguably violate civil liberties have been disappointed by the president’s continued commitment to keeping Guantanamo Bay open, the extension of the Patriot Act and FISA, and executive authorized actions in Libya and other areas. Yet the population at large has made it unclear whether it is ready for a whole cloth return to the pre-9/11 security apparatus, despite the fact that numerous studies have revealed that national security is now given a major preference compared to individual privacy. This continues to be the reason why the United States government continues to allow intelligence access to private information for security reasons. It is also correct to conclude that national security is critical, and that we will remain in a time of heightened security for the foreseeable future. There will be individual privacy if national security is assured, whereas national security is not guaranteed if individual privacy is granted. Luckily, there is still no indication that information has been made public as far as surveillance is concerned. Therefore, it is worth concluding that national security is prioritized compared to individual privacy given the fact that people still universally value national security.


  1. Homeland Security. (2011). EU Individual Privacy Rights versus U.S. Homeland Security. Retrieved Jan 30, 2012, from Information Privacy Law: http://www.brianrowe.org/infoprivacylaw/2011/04/16/eu-individual-privacy-rights-versus-u-s-homeland-security-2/
  2. Jones, K. (2008). National Security Trumps Personal Privacy, Government IT Pros Say. InformationWeek. Retrieved from http://www.informationweek.com/news/206901345
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  5. Mitrano, T. (2003). Civil Privacy and National Security Legislation: A Three-Dimensional View. Educause Review, 38(6), 52–62.
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