Custom «Government Surveillance» Essay Paper Sample

Government Surveillance


In times of the national predicament, and when matters of the nation’s security are concerned, American citizens are more often asked to give up liberty and privacy for the sake of security. It is argued that a fair amount of security can be achieved for only a little privacy. After the September 11 attack, the US government has strategized numerous checks to make sure that the same, as well as other terrorist attacks, is prevented. Congress instituted the PATRIOT Act, which grants the government security bodies surveillance authorizations over the citizens with or without their consent or knowledge. The main goal of the Patriot Act is to strengthen the internal security and to expand the powers of these enforcement agencies with the intent of identifying and stopping terrorism. The Patriot Act is the backbone of the government surveillance activities and the ways in which they should be carried out. The surveillance that boosts security does not need to be intrusive or life changing. The government agents do not have to physically search each and every suspect or those associated with them. The progression in digital technology has made government surveillance comparatively unobtrusive. The use of GPS, video monitoring, body scanners, data surveillance, as well as biometric technologies provide the enforcement agencies with monitoring tools, without unnecessarily burdening those under observation.

Since 2006, the National Security Agency (NSA) has been secretly recording phone conversations of millions of American citizens using the US largest telecommunication providers, through a chain of regularly renewed requests by the FBI. It is also reported that the NSA has been doing the same collection of information through electronic mails, credit card transactions, as well as internet searches. The government has accepted some elements of this collection program, although it claims that the agents should not scrutinize the collected information unless there is reasonable suspicion that it is related to foreign terrorism. Over these years, NSA has gotten exceptional access to the information processed by the nine top US internet companies. This surveillance has been elevated to the international level in order to allow fair sharing of information between nations. Citizens have moral privacy rights that check the government’s surveillance activities. Although these rights are not absolute, they provide the citizens with protection from prying eyes and ears of individuals, agencies, as well as states. Despite all the challenges associated with surveillance, from individuals’ point of view, government surveillance is critical for the welfare and security of any country (Richards, 2013).


Government surveillance is very controversial especially in the US where it is not held to the same standards of answerability. Although the American constitution safeguards its citizens from arbitrary searches and annexations, physical searches of persons may not be conducted without a warrant given by a court. Nonetheless, after the institution of FISA and other consequent laws including the Patriot Act, the citizens have not been accorded the same protection regarding to electronic surveillance. During the past few decades, there has been a change in lifestyle and an explosive advancement in technology that has taken surveillance to the next level. As such, electronic surveillance is now seen as more intrusive than a physical search, and it is now easier for the government agencies to carry out surveillance. The increasing spread of surveillance is slowly changing the constitutional landscape of America. While there is nothing particularly unconstitutional with the government’s use of surveillance, there is however a great danger that it may disrupt some of the presuppositions that strengthen the relationship between the state and its citizens. The citizens should exist in an environment of a kind of tacit social contract whereby they anticipate being free and having their freedom protected; thus, the main reason for security is to safeguard their rights and to carry on their daily activities with no interferences. In case protection starts to interfere with freedom, the tacit contract is challenged.

According to Richards (2013), surveillance endorses the view that everybody is untrustworthy. If the government is collecting information on people at all times on the basis that they may commit a crime, it promotes the view that the citizens cannot be trusted. There is evidence that loss of trust in a nation may seriously affect the functioning of the government structures. Presence of trust in a state is an important criterion for submission to law, therefore anything that compromises trust has a tendency of creating resistance and may lead to a creation of a hostile relationship between the citizens and the state. The citizens will have a feeling that they cannot trust the government with the information they have about them and this may make them feel unsafe and reluctant to co-operate with the government and to give more information. This is because they will be worried that the information might get lost or fall into the wrong hands. It is suggested that the increasing use of surveillance by the government and the enlarged investigatory powers is as a result of a clash between the enforcement agencies and the criminals with technology as a main tool. As a result of this battle the civilians are exposed to growing levels of surveillance.

The main worry of the public and human rights commissions, especially those who are against government surveillance, is that personal information collected by the agencies may be misused, especially when it falls into the wrong hands. The amount of personal information kept by the government and the private sector is so huge that it raises alarm because of its possible consequences for both personal and national security. It has been noted that the tendency of data loss and misuse is growing daily. In the past few years, a series of data losses by several government agencies have been reported (Richards, 2013). No data collection or handling is a hundred percent secure. The list of mistakes and untoward results, which have adverse consequences on personal liberty and security, is endless. I a case that this happens, the citizens usually find it very hard to straighten records or get compensation. Also, the continuous collection and storage of personal information exposes the citizens to criminal organizations, which might steal and misuse their information. There is a robust black market business in individuals’ details and any accidental loss of personal data by the government places the citizens at high risk of fraud. As such, it is suggested that the relevant authorities holding the information should use encryption techniques so as to control access to the information, though it is not fully foolproof.

Another main concern of the opponents of government surveillance is individual freedom and personal privacy. Privacy is essential to every human being and lack of it may lead to mental or physical suffering. Every citizen has a right to privacy and this is provided by the constitution. A massive use of surveillance poses a risk to personal freedom and privacy. The eminent shift to massive surveillance will affect the major part of the population and render the privacy and the individual autonomy related to it vulnerable. Privacy is important for the development and functioning of a broad range of social relationships. The widespread use of surveillance undercuts all the important values of privacy as a public good (Richards, 2013).

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Protecting its citizens is the main duty of each government. Privacy and security should be considered as morally valuable. Privacy is defined as the right to control the access and uses of bodies, locations, as well as information. Privacy is necessary for the wellbeing of every individual. Security is the most valued, whether obtained from a person’s right to self-defense or through a social contract, a priority function of any government structure is to protect the rights of its citizens. On the contrary, at the highest basic level, the presence of security enables the individuals or citizens to have control over their property, lives, and projects. For one to consider him- or herself secure at this level, he/she should be having sovereignty over a private territory. That is, one should be secure from any unnecessary intrusion from other parties such as individuals or the state. Security also safeguards individuals, groups, and business entities from unwarranted prying. Without security, individuals and corporations would not be operating freely. By looking at this at a broader perspective, whenever security and privacy conflict, security wins. The national security is more important than the privacy of the citizens. Typically, security safeguards the fundamental rights, the priority of which is the right to life. On the other hand, privacy protects important individual or group interests, which, in most instances, cannot be elevated to the level of a nation’s security or a matter of life and death. The basis of government surveillance is built on the Patriot Act, which was passed after the September 11 attack. The opponents of the Act claim that the latter gives the government more powers to infringe the rights of the citizens, which they claim threatens the civil liberty and privacy, as well the democratic tradition of the Americans. The Act widely expands the surveillance and investigative powers of the enforcement agencies and provides the government with a stronger justification of its surveillance activities. In full, the full title of the Patriot Act is Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. It is split into ten parts and it covers a very wide ground (Mark, 2014).

Due to the government surveillance, some evils such as terrorism can be eliminated for good. As discussed above, such evils should be eliminated at all costs even if it means interfering with the rights of the citizens. The transitory and the renewal of the Patriot Act have been surrounded with a lot of controversies. Nevertheless, those who support it point out that it has been helpful in a number of ways. Since its passing, it has been instrumental in several investigations, and also arrests of several terrorists have been successful. The Patriot Act reflects the wider understanding of government surveillance. Due to the numerous technological advancements employed by the government agencies, terrorism has been reduced, and can be eliminated completely if much effort is factored in. The Patriot Act enables or allows the government officials to employ surveillance as a tool to combat terrorism and other crimes and activities related to it. Investigators collect information when dealing with terrorism-related crimes such as chemical weapons, terrorist financing, and killing of Americans in other countries. Due to surveillance, the agencies can easily follow up refined terrorists to dodge detection. Since the international terrorists are highly trained to evade detection by regularly changing places and communication gadgets such as mobile phones, continuous surveillance techniques can easily detect them. Also, due to surveillance the agency officials can carry out their investigations without alerting or tipping off the terrorists. In some cases, like terrorism, if suspects are tipped off earlier to an investigation, they might take refuge, destroy evidence, threaten or kill witnesses, warn the associates, or use any other means to tamper with the investigation or escape arrest. If a judicial-approved warrant is used, a notice is given but is delayed to give investigators a head start before notifying the suspect. As a way of curbing evils like terrorism, through surveillance, the investigating agencies can access business records in terrorism cases, which in this case can identify and arrest those suspected in terrorism funding.

The government surveillance entails tracking of information such as electronic mails, SMSs and phone records. The NSA collects phone records of the Americans using the country`s largest telecommunication providers. It also gets a full access to all data handled and processed by the leading American internet companies. The companies include the major social media platforms such as Facebook, Skype, Google, as well as Apple. By tracking all these kinds of communication information, the government agencies can prevent some injurious occasions that may arise e.g. kidnapping and many other criminal situations. Although the NSA collectss this information secretly, the government has accepted the presence of this collection scheme behind the public eye. The government also defends this action by claiming that the information is not analyzed in detail unless in the presence of a strong suspicion. The tracking of personal communication is viewed by the public as interfering with personal rights to privacy since there is some sensitive personal information that an individual can hide from the others. An individual can withhold this info from others not because it relates to criminal activity, but because basically the others do not have any right to access it. The information can be of sexual, medical, religious or political content. Taking into consideration the actual benefits of surveillance or tracking the communication information, it can be argued that infringement of privacy is just a nuisance and ought to be traded for security.

According to Mark (2014), whenever there is a conflict between two fundamental interests, we should embrace a balancing plan, find out which interest is weightier, and then give up the lesser interest at the expense of the other. If it is widely accepted or decided that one sort of the interest is more important than the other, then it is justified if specific policies are adopted in order to trade the lesser interest for the bigger one. Secondly, when security and privacy conflict, it is always true that matters of security are weightier than those of privacy. For instance, the privacy intrusion associated with the National Security Agency surveillance, any other enforcement agency, or other forms of data mining are not as important as preventing terrorism and stopping other forms of injurious occasions resulting from the use of the information collected. In these cases, the privacy intrusions are just a disturbance and not actual harm as the occasions avoided. So it follows that the government should sacrifice the privacy in some occasions and implement policies that allow privacy infringements for the purpose of security. By giving up privacy, by tracking the communications data, the government agents have been able to stop numerous injurious occasions, and will continue to disrupt more criminal and terrorist actions (Mark, 2014).

Some of the illegal businesses in existence are too discrete and require more vitality. Continuous surveillance by the relevant government authorities is the best tool to deal with such illegal activities. Surveillance employs advanced technological techniques that make it easy to detect illegal business activities e.g. money laundering, drug trafficking, and other illegal goods. Video cameras installed in places such as airports, body scanners, and tracking of credit card transactions are just a few of these techniques used. Title three of the US Patriot Act is intended to promote the prevention, uncovering, and prosecution of international money laundering and the funding of terrorism. The title is further split into three subtitles but the most important subtitle in relation to government surveillance is the one that tries to improve the relationship and the exchange of information between the financial institutions and the enforcement agencies. It also improves the keeping of records, and adherence to the reporting requirements. Under normal circumstances, the financial information of an individual or corporation is deemed confidential and the access to it is controlled. The illegal business transactions can be detected by scrutinizing the financial data obtained from the financial institutions. After tightening the requirements for record keeping, the government officials can get any kind of the important information they need, for example, total amounts of transactions carried out in areas or locations, which are of concern to the government or are under investigation. The financial institutions are also made to institute frameworks that identify the owners of bank accounts as well as the individuals authorized to use the accounts.

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Apart from money laundering and terrorism funding, other illegal businesses and financial crimes can be uncovered by tracking financial information. Under normal circumstances, these activities cannot be easily identified. Government officials or employees who carry out corrupt activities can also be detected through surveillance. Some of these businesses and criminal acts have a lot of negative impacts on the economy as well as the national security of the US government. For instance, corrupt government officials and money laundering affects the economy. Most importantly, illegal businesses which include trade in firearms and ammunition can pose a huge threat to the national security. Most of these illegal businesses are transnational or transregional and the best way to control them is through continuous government surveillance. This surveillance has been improved by technological abilities that have taken it to a greater level (Mark, 2014).


Government surveillance is constant observation by the government agencies; it includes collection of various forms of information, most of which are personal for the improvement of security. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the US government instituted numerous measures including the Patriot Act, which allows the government security bodies to spy on its citizens. The main aim of surveillance is to improve security by combating criminal and terrorist acts. Due to the improved technology, it is now easier for the government to carry out surveillance. The issue of government surveillance has created much debate on its legibility and legality. Some see it as an intrusion of privacy while others claim that it is the best way to curb terrorism. Moreover, the information collected by the government can be of great danger if misused. As much as it infringes the citizens’ right to privacy, surveillance has more benefits than disadvantages. Tracking of communication data helps in avoiding and preventing possible injurious events. It also helps uncover and stop some illegal businesses which are not easily detected. Surveillance should be elevated to the international level whereby the countries worldwide will easily share intelligence information. This way, the issue of international criminal activities especially terrorism will be fully addressed, and this could lead to a safer and prosperous world.

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