surveillance word cloud forming a head
How do we balance our need to prevent attacks by foreign agents and our right to privacy?

April 5, 2017

Finding a Balance: Privacy and Safety

by Leo Mata, a J.D. student at Texas Law, Rapoport Center Fellow, and a member of the 2016-2017 Working Paper Series Editorial Committee.

Considering the most recent release of information by WikiLeaks, and the ongoing 2016 election investigation, it seems as apt a time as ever to reevaluate the right of privacy and how far it truly protects the individual. In the United States, while the right to privacy is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has looked to various amendments to establish this right through decades of court jurisprudence. In contrast, the right to privacy has been enshrined in at least 170 constitutions across the globe. Moreover the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, Joseph Cannataci, has stated that “[article] 12 of the UNDHR and [article] 17 of the ICCPR do not state that the right to privacy is a right which is only enjoyed by the citizens of one’s own state.” So, it should not matter whether your own country has a constitutional provision safeguarding individual privacy, as long as that country has signed onto the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Yet, it is worth noting that even within each of these avenues for protection, constitutional or treaty based, there are limits to the protection. The line for protection is usually drawn around the ideas of unlawful interference or arbitrariness. The important question here, then, is: How do we balance our need to prevent attacks by foreign agents and our right to privacy?

Looking at the United States, we can track a variety of spying scandals as examples. The idea of spying on U.S. citizens is neither uncommon or unheard of. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in its history has tracked such notable figures as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt, and was implicated, along with other agencies, in the Watergate scandal. The government said it monitored Rev. King out of fear that his movement was being infiltrated by communists, and this reasoning was enough for the Attorney General to approve monitoring. In the modern era, combatting foreign actors is often the guise under which government agencies justify domestic spying. Learning from our past mistakes, the United States established the FISA Court which is designed to act as a safeguard against unnecessary intrusions into our lives while allowing the government to monitor for foreign intelligence purposes. However, despite this level of protection there have been numerous reports of the National Surveillance Agency (NSA) acting beyond their legal scope. So, we must ask, is the FISA Court a sufficient level of protection against the abuse of an individual’s right to privacy? Even the Court itself has acknowledged it has a limited ability to protect our right to privacy.

The recent trove of documents released by WikiLeaks identify methods, such as the installation of spyware into your smart TV or smart phone, that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) could use to gather information. The idea that the CIA can hack into devices is nothing new, spying is in fact what their job entails as a means of protecting the United States, but when placed side by side with a history of abuse, it is hard to not fear a violation of privacy. This has, justifiably, put many on edge. However, it is important to note that the tools released are older and have reportedly been patched by the respective technology companies.

Putting the WikiLeaks release aside, there seems to be little concern from the public over what U.S. intelligence agencies do in their efforts to conduct foreign surveillance. However, what has raised some concerns is when foreign surveillance includes the surveillance of U.S. citizens. Recently, this has come to the attention of many Americans with the announcement that surveillance of U.S. citizens occurred while intelligence agencies monitored Russian communications during the 2016 election. It should be noted that this type of surveillance on U.S. citizens falls into a category known as incidental collection. While incidental collection is nothing new, the ongoing 2016 election investigation has resulted in the release of names and information of U.S. citizens. The disclosure of personal information has caused some people to worry that the intelligence community is not protecting our information as closely as they contend. However, this is the FISA Amendments Act doing exactly what it is designed to do. While incidental surveillance will always be an issue if surveillance exists, the recent focus on it is more relevant than ever as the FISA Amendments Act is set to expire on December 31, 2017. This presents an opportunity for Americans to voice their concerns and either continue down the path we are on, or request that changes be made.

For some, these methods of spying and releasing of personal information will create paranoia, for others anger, but for most they will create no disruption to their daily lives. Each of these responses alone demonstrates a failure within our society. In the face of the ever-growing foreign threats, it is of the utmost importance that we have a conversation about how we combat it. As members of society do we not owe a duty to one another to prevent harm from befalling us? If so, to what length does that duty extend? Should the government be given greater leeway in protecting civilians from terrorism, or would we rather risk greater harm for greater privacy? Is it enough to leave it to private companies to push back against government intrusions? If history is any indicator it seems that our privacy rights will continue to give way to combat the grave threats before us. To prevent this seemingly inevitable future, as we move forward in our efforts to protect Americans—and whatever the next threat may be—the logic behind the need for surveillance should not go unchallenged or be considered infallible. Just because the right to privacy was not designed to be an absolute right does not mean it should be cast aside.

Project & Publications Type: Human Rights Commentary