The USA PATRIOT Act and issues of privacy

The twentieth century has been a transformational period for human societies.  As the process of industrialization advanced during this period, more people moved away from rural to urban settings.  As a result major cities became overpopulated and towns expanded into cities.  The meaning of ‘public space’ got expanded and redefined during this process.  And when millions of people share limited geographical space, individual privacy becomes a problem.  The problem is essentially twofold: firstly, it is challenging for government agencies to protect the privacy rights of its citizens and secondly, the city dwellers are faced with threats to their privacy by criminals and fraudsters.  It is in this backdrop that we must study the issue of privacy in the United States today.  As the most advanced nation in the world, the urban spaces in the United States are the nerve centers for global commerce and politics.  A loss of privacy in the form of loss of confidential information can have far-reaching negative consequences for individuals/corporations/governments involved.

In the last two decades, the issue of privacy has taken a new dimension, with the advent of electronic communication.  The growth of the Internet has posed new challenges to administrators of privacy and so far these challenges are not properly met.  There is plenty of commercial activity that takes place in the Internet, thereby raising the stakes of proper security measures.  An FBI report indicates that phishing scams are occurring more frequently on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Orkut.  Viruses, decoy messages and hacked personal accounts are employed to acquire private data of a user, which is later abused for various purposes.  For example,

“Messages, which generally masquerade as warnings related to service agreements or other notifications, contain malicious code that covertly installs software on victims’ PCs, letting thieves steal account names and passwords. The thieves then use the accounts to distribute messages to friends of the victim, requesting large sums of money and spreading the malicious code even further”. (Schiller, 2009)

In the light of discovering such scams in the world of social networking, the FBI has notified Internet users to strengthen their privacy settings and also take precautionary measures such as “disabling options such as photo sharing when possible, and carefully scrutinizing links before deciding to click on them, regardless of their apparent source” (Schiller, 2009).  Already, in the few years that social networking sites have taken root, more than three thousand cases of account hacking have occurred.   But the security risks posed by social networks are not so great as to warrant governmental intrusion as under the PATRIOT Act.  For example, in a survey conducted recently on young people, most “expressed a fair amount of confidence about their knowledge of and control of their personal privacy on Facebook; most expressed trust with the privacy controls Facebook affords user” (Shade, 2008).  The participants are well aware of the risks involved and the requisite precautionary measures to be taken.  In other words, the youth of today who dominate the online social networking scene are careful about protecting their privacy.   There are some minor concerns though on

“how other users (friends’ or peers) treat their personal information (such as tagging photos without their knowledge or permission) are often an irritant and matter of concern.  Further, increasing tensions over parental access to Facebook (either through parental attempts to monitor their child’s personal profile or parents becoming Facebook users themselves) and how youth will negotiate personal revelations that future university admissions officers, potential employers, etc., could have access to, are yet another challenge. (Shade, 2008)”

But none of the above concerns should bring the realm of the Internet under the purview of the PATRIOT Act.  The logic employed by the drafters of counter-terrorist legislation such as the PATRIOT Act is that the Internet has also been a conduit for anti-social activities like planning for terrorist attacks.  There is evidence that some of the terror networks in the Middle East and Asia have used the Internet to plan terror attacks.  This puts pressure on governments to sometimes act intrusively and breach privacy laws in order to provide security to its citizens.  Hence the governing authorities are faced with a dilemma: they are required to respect privacy rights of its citizens while also expected to provide them security from terror attacks.  Often times, it is difficult to provide both and the government ends up compromising on the privacy rights, for it perceives the terror threat to be much graver.  This is typically what happened with the drafting and passing of the USA PATRIOT act in 2001.  Hence, while the PATRIOT Act offered more security, it compromised on the privacy rights of American citizens, making it highly controversial.

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