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Privacy vs. Security - 2001-11-07


"Globalization" was thought of primarily as an economic concept in the United States, and the openness of U.S. society was considered a virtue. But for many Americans, the attacks of September 11 have changed those attitudes, causing them to worry about the vulnerabilities that result from both globalization and openness.

A national poll taken last year found that privacy was Americans' greatest concern. The arrival of the digital age had brought with it profound fears that people might be forfeiting personal details of their private lives when they send electronic mail or shop on the Internet.

An attorney at the law firm of Nixon Peabody, Ray Gustini, says the attacks September 11 made the concerns of the digital age seem like ancient history. "I think our notions of concern for individual privacy have been replaced by a concern for collective security as a priority," he said. "I think as a result, most folks are willing to give up something to give law enforcement weapons to prevent and to catch terrorists ... weapons that are aggressive in some areas and that they might not have been willing to give before."

Just how much power are people willing to give authorities?

Ironically, given last year's preoccupation with digital privacy, the anti-terrorism law passed by Congress in October gives the government increased powers in electronic surveillance.

Many U.S. civil libertarians, like Temple University professor David Kairys, are concerned those powers go too far. "The FBI and the Justice Department dusted off some proposals that they have long wanted to do and there's long been resistance to them in the past," he said. "It is easier for the government to keep track of who you send e-mails to and who you get e-mail from, what web sites you visit."

While he, too, is concerned about the enhanced power of U.S. law enforcement officials to monitor Internet communications, attorney Ray Gustini says it is important to remember such powers will not be permanent. "The new provisions all [expire] after four years," said Ray Gustini. "Unless Congress passes them again, they won't be renewed. So that has a great leveling effect on law enforcement to use those power wisely, and not to abuse the powers they have received."

A proposal requiring all Americans to carry identification cards was so controversial, Dallas attorney Rob Scott says, that it was eliminated from the anti-terrorist law. But, he says, the controversy over identification cards continues. "One of the legal issues that needs to be sorted out is what type of information can and should be included," he said. "If it goes beyond just basic name, address, telephone and identification number information into medical records, criminal background, credit history. Those areas certainly could present controversy."

And then there are concerns about racial profiling - suspecting people of being terrorists just because of their ethnic backgrounds. Attorney Rob Scott says many are concerned about the large number of Arab-Americans presently being held by law enforcement officials. "Once we start turning on our own people, and once we start changing our system in the name of national security and start eliminating the rights at the foundation of our country, then we've really lost the war, because that's exactly what the terrorists want," said Rob Scott. "They want to disrupt our democratic way of life."

In times like these, Rob Scott says, the line between taking the necessary precautions to prevent terrorism and violating civil liberties is a very thin one. But, he says, it is a line that must be preserved.