During times of national crisis, we, as American citizens, may be less likely to think twice about being subjected to government surveillance. After all, it’s in the name of the greater good, and for the sake of protecting our country from terrorist threats, right? It’s not quite that simple. People shouldn’t be so quick to give up their privacy rights in the name of national security because this makes it too easy for the government to abuse their power and strip citizens of rights for reasons that may not be justified.
Now, some people will surely argue that giving up a few privacy rights is a small cost for making sure our country is safe. In his essay, “Invisible Man: Ethics in a World Without Secrets,” philosopher Peter Singer suggests that people will be more honest and altruistic if they feel that they are being watched, referring to Focault’s idea of the “panopticon” as an ideal model.1 Human beings are easily influenced by social pressures, so I don’t question the validity of Singer’s suggestion, but I have to ask, what will this feeling of being watched do to people’s personalities and sense of identity over time?
In George Orwell’s 1984, Orwell introduces the concept of “Big Brother,” a figure that has become synonymous with the idea of government surveillance.2 Big Brother is government surveillance at its worst (if you so much as think about rebellion, “the Party” will find you and torture you into submission, however long it takes), but I can’t help but sense a bit of Big Brother in Singer’s interpretation of the panopticon. The United States government may not be trying to control our thoughts and establish a totalitarian state, but will people still feel comfortable behaving naturally and “being themselves” if they feel like they are always under the government’s eye? How long will it take before people either start feeling the need to be surreptitious about their behavior and take it underground, or start basing their regular behavior on government ideals for fear of being accused of a crime otherwise (although I feel like the former possibility is more likely)?
The government may say that it needs to circumvent certain rights in order to crack down on terrorist threats, but there are ways to do so while protecting American citizens’ right to privacy and remaining within the limits of the Constitution. A perfect example of this is the US National Security Agency (NSA)’s pre-9/11 surveillance project, ThinThread. The NSA was falling behind, technologically speaking, as America headed into the Internet age. It was awash in more data than it could possibly comprehend with its information processing methods at the time. ThinThread, developed by NSA crypto-mathematician Bill Binney while working with the agency’s Signals Intelligence Automation Research Center (SARC), was going to be the solution.3 Journalist Jane Mayer explains in an article for the New Yorker, that what made ThinThread ingenious is that, “Instead of vacuuming up information around the world and then sending it all back to headquarters for analysis, ThinThread processed information as it was collected—discarding useless information on the spot and avoiding the overload problem that plagued centralized systems.”3 ThinThread was so thorough and good at collecting information that it picked up intelligence on American citizens without the NSA intending it to. As a fix, Binney built in a set of privacy controls. With these controls in place, data on American citizens would remain encrypted unless ThinThread flagged it as a potential threat. In this case, it would remain encrypted until NSA officials were able to obtain a proper warrant to access it. The NSA could scour the world for threats and pinpoint specific bits of potentially significant data, all while maintaining a reasonably small budget for the project, remaining within the confines of the law and protecting the privacy of American citizens. But after 9/11 that was no longer enough.
ThinThread was scrapped, and the pieces were used to build its follower, the Trailblazer Project. Trailblazer was very similar to ThinThread, but lacked the privacy controls. The government wanted to be able to search for people by name without the limits of the US Constitution to stop them. (This justification doesn’t make sense to me because if the specific people the NSA is targeting are serious threats, shouldn’t ThinThread take notice of their communications anyway?) In an interview with Mayer for her New Yorker article, Diane Roark, a staff member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said that when she confronted then NSA Director Michael Hayden about why he removed the privacy measures from Trailblazer, he reluctantly said after some prodding, “We didn’t need them. We had the power.”3 Hayden basically admitted that the NSA saw following privacy laws as a hindrance and thus, decided to circumvent them. President Bush actually gave the NSA permission through a secret executive order to go forward with the Trailblazer Project, even though monitoring American citizens without a warrant violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). According to a March 2010 article in the New York Times, “Congress (has since) overhauled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to bring federal statutes into closer alignment with what the Bush administration had been secretly doing. The legislation essentially legalized certain aspects of the program.”4 Surveillance of American citizens without a warrant is still illegal, but that doesn’t mean the Obama administration has refrained from the unethical practices of its predecessor entirely. It was proven in pilot tests that ThinThread worked efficiently and effectively, so I have yet to see a true justification for why the program wasn’t used instead of Trailblazer, which went hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and was ultimately deemed a failure.3 Not only do I question the NSA’s motives in rejecting ThinThread, but I have also recently come to question the extent of what our government deems a “terrorist threat” itself.
In his book, The Illusion of Progress in the Arab World, Galal Amin compares the idea of “terrorism” that we know now, to the idea of “communism” that circulated during the Cold War.5 He lays out the fact that the name “terrorism” is extremely vague and can be used to refer to practically any act that is “scary.” In being scary however, no one dares to question it, not only for fear of being caught off-guard by it, but also because of the powerful stigma attached to the label of “conspiracy theorist” that is attached to anyone who questions the validity of a concept as large and significant as this. But really, how do we, as American citizens, know exactly what terrorism is and how pressing of a threat it actually poses at any given time? The United States Criminal Code includes a legal definition of “terrorism,” but according to the Oxford Companion to American Law, throughout the rest of the world, “There is no generally agreed upon definition of ‘terrorism.’”6 I’m not questioning the fact that our country needs to be protected from potential threats, but I am wondering if the threat of terrorism is as pressing as it is made out to be, and if the government truly has a need to spy on American citizens without a warrant to fight it. During times of war or conflict, people’s legal rights should offer them more protection, not less, for the very reason that any national threat can be used as justification for pushing those rights aside. They need to stand firm in times of peace and conflict.
A lot of people who believe in our government’s security efforts will surely say, “Let them look in on me. I’ve got nothing to hide.” In his book, Nothing to Hide, Daniel Solove quotes author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, saying, “Everyone is guilty of something or has something to conceal. All one has to do is look hard enough to find what it is.”7 No one is a completely open book, all of the time. Would you honestly be okay if the public knew about that despicable thing you did as a child that you’d rather forget about? Or that secret fetish that took all the guts you could muster just to share with your significant other? I doubt the government cares about the average citizen’s sexual fetishes, but that’s not entirely the point. The point is that everyone has something they’re reluctant to share with the world, and if asked, point blank, to hand that information over, I’m pretty sure people would think twice about having “nothing to hide.”
Privacy laws exist for a reason. Even if we don’t always appreciate them, they’re still there to protect us from intrusion. We can always give up information voluntarily when it suits us; that’s part of our privacy rights. But I don’t think it’s wise to give up our right to keep information concealed, entirely. Even with privacy laws in place, the government has broken them in the name of security. Taking away those laws altogether would only make intrusion into people’s personal data easier. It can all start with performing our duty as Americans to help our government keep us safe. We give up a few rights temporarily during wartime to allow greater intelligence to be gathered. But after that, who’s to say that those rights ever get handed back? And after that, it’ll be something else. You might be asked for your phone records, your bank records, then your travel records; little by little, privacy can be chipped away. And if we’re not careful, one day we’re going to wake up and realize that we don’t have any privacy rights left, at which point we are going to be left wondering, what the hell happened and where did we go wrong?
1. Singer, Peter. “Invisible Man: Ethics in a World Without Secrets.” Harper’s Magazine. August 2011. 31-36. Print. Accessed as .pdf from <http://pages.uoregon.edu/koopman/courses_readings/phil123-net/privacy/singer_secrecy_wikileaks.pdf>
2. Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Knopf, 1992. Print.
3. Mayer, Jane. “The Secret Sharer: Is Thomas Drake an Enemy of the State?” The New Yorker. Condé Nast Digital. May 23rd, 2011. Web. <http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/05/23/110523fa_fact_mayer?currentPage=all> Accessed: February 11th, 2012.
4. Savage, Charlie. “Federal Judge Finds N.S.A. Wiretaps Were Illegal.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. March 31st, 2010. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/01/us/01nsa.html> Accessed: February 12th, 2012.
5. Amin, Galal. The Illusion of Progress in the Arab World: A Critique of Western Misconstructions. New York & Cairo: American University in Cairo Press. 2006. Print.
6. John F. Murphy. “Terrorism.” The Oxford Companion to American Law. Kermit L. Hall, ed. Oxford University Press 2002. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Oregon. <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t122.e0909> Accessed: February 12th, 2012
7. Solove, Daniel J. Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. 2011. Print. Accessed in part as .pdf from <http://pages.uoregon.edu/koopman/courses_readings/phil123-net/privacy/solove_nothing-to-hide-book.pdf>
Tags: american citizens, government surveillance, National Security, Philosophy, Terrorist Threats
Are you debating whether or not to take the optional ACT essay? Some schools require it, so we highly recommend that you take it (make sure to register for ACT with Writing).
But no need to stress! The essay follows a predictable format, which means you can practice and prepare beforehand. Take a look at a sample ACT writing prompt and learn five key steps to penning a high-scoring essay.
ACT Writing Prompt
This example writing prompt comes straight from our book Cracking the ACT:
Education and the Workplace
Many colleges and universities have cut their humanities departments, and high schools have started to shift their attention much more definitively toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and away from ELA (English, Language Arts). Representatives from both school boards and government organizations suggest that the move toward STEM is necessary in helping students to participate in a meaningful way in the American workplace. Given the urgency of this debate for the future of education and society as a whole, it is worth examining the potential consequences of this shift in how students are educated in the United States.
Read and carefully consider these perspectives. Each suggests a particular way of thinking about the shift in American education.
|Perspective 1||Perspective 2||Perspective 3|
|ELA programs should be emphasized over STEM programs. Education is not merely a means to employment: ELA education helps students to live more meaningful lives. In addition, an exclusively STEM-based program cannot help but limit students’ creativity and lead them to overemphasize the importance of money and other tangible gains.||ELA programs should be eradicated entirely, except to establish the basic literacy necessary to engage in the hard sciences, mathematics, and business. Reading and writing are activities that are best saved for the leisure of students who enjoy them.||ELA and STEM programs should always be in equal balance with one another. Both are necessary to providing a student with a well-rounded education. Moreover, equal emphasis will allow the fullest possible exposure to many subjects before students choose their majors and careers|
Write a unified, coherent essay in which you evaluate multiple perspectives on the issue of how schools should balance STEM and ELA subjects. In your essay, be sure to:
- analyze and evaluate the perspectives given
- state and develop your own perspective on the issue
- explain the relationship between your perspective and those given
Your perspective may be in full agreement with any of the others, in partial agreement, or wholly different. Whatever the case, support your ideas with logical reasoning and detailed, persuasive examples.
How to Write the ACT Essay
Your job is to write an essay in which you take some sort of position on the prompt, all while assessing the three perspectives provided in the boxes. Find a way to anchor your essay with a unique perspective of your own that can be defended and debated, and you are already in the upper echelon of scorers.
Step 1: Work the Prompt
What in the prompt requires you to weigh in? Why is this issue still the subject of debate and not a done deal?
Step 2: Work the Perspectives
Typically, the three perspectives will be split: one for, one against, and one in the middle. Your goal in Step 2 is to figure out where each perspective stands and then identify at least one shortcoming of each perspective. For the example above, ask yourself:
- What does each perspective consider?
- What does each perspective overlook?
Step 3: Generate Your Own Perspective
Now it's time to come up with your own perspective! If you merely restate one of the three given perspectives, you won’t be able to get into the highest scoring ranges. You’ll draw from each of the perspectives, and you may side with one of them, but your perspective should have something unique about it.
Step 4: Put It All Together
Now that you have your ideas in order, here's a blueprint for how to organize the ACT essay. This blueprint works no matter what your prompt is.
Body Paragraph (1)
|Body Paragraph (2)|
Step 5: (If There's Time): Proofread
Spend one or two minutes on proofreading your essay if you have time. You’re looking for big, glaring errors. If you find one, erase it completely or cross it out neatly. Though neatness doesn’t necessarily affect your grade, it does make for a happy grader.
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