Public opinion has consistently favored protection from terrorism over civil liberties since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, yet Americans also have expressed concerns about government overreach and intrusions on their privacy, research shows.
Fifty percent of Americans approve of the government’s collection of telephone and Internet data as part of federal anti-terrorism efforts, while 44 percent disapprove, according to a national survey conducted in July by the Pew Research Center.
But many were shocked by recent revelations about how the National Security Agency accessed the personal telephone, email and Internet data of millions of U.S. residents. Some Americans fear the government is going too far.
Kate Chesar, a 37-year-old Oakwood resident, said she is concerned about government surveillance.
“It (makes) me feel like I’m being watched when I don’t need to be,” Chesar said Tuesday. “It makes me wonder if it’s going against my rights to privacy that have been given to me.”
Twelve years ago today, nearly 3,000 people were killed in coordinated terrorist attacks carried out by the Islamist extremist group al-Qaeda.
A group of 19 terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes and deliberately crashed two of them into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center. They later crashed a third plane into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. Passengers on the fourth plane fought back, and the plane was crashed into an empty field in western Pennsylvania.
The attacks led the U.S. to fight extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Americans had a “palpable sense of insecurity” in the wake of 9/11 and “leaned hard to the security side and put certain concerns about liberty on a shelf for a while,” said Patrick Haney, a professor and interim chair of Miami University’s Department of Political Science.
Over time, public opinion has swung back to a more balanced view, as evidenced by the recent Pew Research figures, Haney said. The Edward Snowden case and NSA disclosures have led some people to “perhaps even be sharply critical of some of these moves,” he said.
Fifty-six percent of Americans said that federal courts fail to provide adequate limits on the telephone and Internet data the government is collecting as part of its anti-terrorism efforts, according to the Pew Research survey. In addition, 70 percent believe the government uses this data for purposes other than investigating terrorism.
“The tide seems to be turning right now with, I think, a healthy dose of skepticism about whether you really want the power of the state to be monitoring this kind of behavior,” Haney said.
Still, in legal terms, Americans’ online communications are public because they are giving that information to a third party, such as an Internet service provider, who can track what they are doing, said Susan Brenner, a University of Dayton School of Law professor and director of the school’s CyberLaw Center.
“There is a fundamental principle of Fourth Amendment law, which is as soon as you share anything with another person, you can’t control them — they can give it away,” Brenner said. “If you apply that to online. None of it is private,” she said.
Under federal law, the contents of a sealed postal letter or package is private, but a postcard that can be read by anyone is not, Brenner said. To “seal” an email message, “you would have to encrypt it,” she said.
The constant monitoring of Americans extends well beyond the government’s tracking of telephone and electronic communications.
High-tech security cameras maintain around-the-clock vigils on houses, businesses and streets, helping police capture criminals but also track law-abiding citizens.
The Transportation Security Administration screens all commercial airline passengers and baggage to secure the nation’s airports.
Businesses track consumers’ online habits and transactions through their web browsers. Many employers also monitor their workers’ online activity.
Nearly 75 percent of Americans said they were concerned that business corporations are collecting too much personal information, compared to 64 percent who expressed the same concern about the government, according to a separate Pew Research survey conducted in June.
Chesar, the Oakwood resident, said she has some reservations about businesses accessing her personal information, but realizes that when she gives this type of information for rewards programs, it’s a tradeoff for things like coupons.
Chesar said she believes personal health and financial information should remain private and no one should be able to access that information without permission.
Elaine Hughes, a Xenia resident, said she has not upgraded to a smartphone because she has concerns about privacy and government surveillance.
“I understand it,” she said. “I know you need it, but I feel like Big Brother is everywhere.”
Hughes said citizens will have to forfeit some privacy for protection from terrorism.
Haney said electronic communications, surveillance and data monitoring tools will only become more powerful over time.
“They therefore will be very tempting to government officials who, even with the best of intentions, will want to use those tools to try to create a safe and secure environment,” he said.
Area 9/11 events
- Fairborn’s 12th annual 9/11 memorial ceremony, 8:30 a.m. today at the National Center for Medical Readiness at Calamityville, 506 W. Xenia Drive.
- Beavercreek community rememberance gathering, 6 p.m. today at the 9/11 Memorial Park, 1153 N. Fairfield Road.
- Brookville community remembrance gathering, 9:30 a.m., today at Brookville High School, 1 Blue Pride Drive.
Photo gallery: View photos of area service members who have died during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at MyDaytonDailyNews.com.