Terrorism: National Security Versus Civil Liberties (Political)

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Patriot Act
  • Valuing Privacy
  • Technology Models
  • Conclusion


Terrorism is a concept that has no set definition. According to William J Perry, director of the Preventive Defense Project at CISAC in Stanford, and Charles Vest, a recipient of ten honorary doctoral degrees, there is a common criteria. This involves spreading terror, violence, the targeting of civilians, political goals, and a psychological impact. Terrorist groups tend to even camouflage in with their targets, in order to hide and cause a damage to the values of a liberal society, for example, the United States. Since the September 9, 2011, the United States of America has been facing an issue of threats from terrorist attacks, or attacks itself. In response to this, the United States has made an effort to create counterterrorism policies to prevent these attacks. With advancements in technology, the government surveillance is able to scope through personal, private information of the public, more now than ever before. This has caused controversy amongst the population of America, creating a debate of the preservation of civil liberties versus national security. People fear that they are being monitored and watched by the government, hindering them from participating in their social environments, in fear that their private details would be analyzed, or even exposed. Civil liberties, such as privacy and freedom of speech, should not be given up for security. However, the threat of a terrorist group can create anxiety, and fear, which also intrudes a pledge of tranquility (Perry and Vest). There is a need for a process in which the request to search information is assessed reasonably, through a figure of high authority. Privacy and freedom, more focused on the internet, shouldn’t be taken away at the expense of security.

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Patriot Act

In response to the 9/11 attack in 2001, the USA Patriot Act of 2001 was formed. It was an act signed by George W. Bush. The abbreviation stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001”. In summary, it was put in forth to allow for surveillance, aid law enforcement, speed up investigations, and add more security measures, and allows for the punishment terrorist acts. The American Civil Liberties Union stated that FBI agents are able to obtain personal information by issuing a National Security Letter, without any warrant, or any suspicion. The act allows the government to see the websites you visit, and the emails you send back and forth. Private information of a normal civilian can be shared with the CIA. Agents are permitted to enter a person’s property with a search warrant when the person isn’t present, and are able to take photographs, and seize their communication. They are allowed to notify the owner later in time. By turning normal, U.S. citizens into suspects for terrorist threats, people disagree with this violation of civil liberties. The Patriot Act also calls for unlawful imprisonment, and the unlawful detainment of falsely accused citizens (Rigoglioso). However, having this act in place can provide a sense of security to the public. Surveys have been addressed by the Pew Research Center about the Patriot Act. A survey from 2015 shows that 67% find it very important to not want someone watching or listening to them without permission. 74% say that being in control of who retrieves personal information is very important. 6% say that they are “very confident” that the government will keep their information private and secure. 65% say that “there are not adequate limits on what telephone and internet data the government can collect (Pew Research). These percentages show a big part of the American public to be worried about their confidential information, and whose hands are on them.

Valuing Privacy

Privacy, similar to terrorism, has a broad range of definitions. In terms of national security, privacy is about the personal information on being keeps, and holding that information private (Perry and Vest). Robin Doherty, a privacy advocate and a consultant for ThoughtWorks, discusses the loss of privacy. When the government is able to monitor a person, freedom of expression is lost. Your patterns of network usage will in turn, change, in order to censor yourself to the government, which loses the personal expression, and interests you invest into the internet. This includes writing, researching, visiting websites, and posting on FaceBook. In a 2013 survey or US writers, 1 in 6 have avoided writing a topic that would pose them to surveillance, and another 1 in 6 had considered rethinking their topic (Doherty). A new act was formed in 2015, with slight modifications from the Patriot Act to comply with the civil rights preservation. It ended the bulk collection of metadata, provides a privacy advocate within the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (Fisa), which would represent privacy concerns. This act was passed as a legislation to add clarifying parameters for surveillance, and accountability. However, it still wouldn’t balance privacy and national security. It still allows the NSA to retrieve a second set of records of suspects with no rational suspicion, and the NSA can still work with phone companies to retrieve phone records. But, this is still a small step of reformation of the Patriot act (Liu).

Technology Models

Mentioned before, terrorists function at a normal societal level to blend in. Therefore, it is hard to differentiate suspects online, when terrorists have no prints left behind. This is a partial part of the intrusion of personal privacy. The advancement of technology, and the exceeding intelligence of computers, data can be collected, and stored. Patterns in online behavior can aid in the differentiation of a suspect and a normal civilian. By having technology as an advantage, rather than a lead to abuse, intelligence agencies can see specific suspects, and provide a suspicion using a systematic approach. Going back to the book written by Perry and Vest, they provide a look into how collective information is used, called the informational life cycle. By going through this process of monitoring, analysis, storage, selective retention or deletion, there can be an avoidance of intrusion. Once information is retained or deleted, based on the specific criteria, it can provide a predictive power to balance against privacy and confidentiality. By combining the future of technology, there may be a future balance.


Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th president of the United States said, “If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.” By giving the government full access to our privacy, it is slowly eroding in their hands. This is not a suggestion for the abolishment of the Patriot Act. It is a calling for a step of reformation. By having a system set in place in which a request of surveillance, house invasion, or any intrusive means of security, there is a push for the preservation of our liberties. The idea of self-censorship is not worth the expense of security for a normal American civilian, who already faces the terror from the news itself. There should be a focused set of boundaries for the NSA, with little room for loopholes in their data requests. A clear method of reliability of data should also be in check. By having a systematic technique, the intelligence community could identify those who are a threat, based on a certain standard that could be created through technology (Perry and Vest). In this era of terrorism, technology, and civil liberties, there is room for the balance of both. This war on terrorism may also be a potential war on our American Civil Liberties. In this case, terrorists won in this war on terrorism, because the terror has spread to the point where America’s national security would violate the liberties that we are granted. With no freedom of speech, and constant worry from surveillance, we may face a stacked ground of fear and control from both the government, and terrorists.

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