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At What Price Privacy?

posted: 6.24.13 by Donna Winchell

As is so often true with political controversy, what is at the heart of disagreement over the National Security Agency’s surveillance of Americans is a disagreement over values. That may seem overly obvious, but it is another example that can be used to explain warrants to students. It also reveals why it is so difficult, in some cases, to find middle ground.

Leaks by Edward J. Snowden, a former NSA contractor, led to public awareness that the agency maintained a huge database of all domestic American phone calls and another of certain emails and phone calls involving “noncitizens abroad.” A  hearing on June 18 focused on these two databases and attempted to defend the surveillance as necessary for national security.

Why do some see the surveillance as a necessary security measure while others see it as a violation of Americans’ right to privacy? It depends on the warrant, or underlying assumption, behind a person’s beliefs. Another way to ask the same question is what general principle underlies each side’s argument?

If you look at their logic using Toulmin’s structure of claim, support, and warrant, the NSA clearly believes that it is worth sacrificing a small measure of personal privacy in order to safeguard the nation against terrorism:

      Claim: The surveillance was necessary to protect against terrorism.
      Support: The surveillance has averted at least 55 potential terrorist acts.
      Warrant: Surveillance that averts potential terrorist acts is necessary.

What makes the NSA’s actions intolerable to some Americans is the that those acts violated Americans’ privacy:

      Claim: The NSA has violated Americans’ right to privacy.
      Support: The NSA has maintained a database of all American domestic phone calls.
      Warrant: For the NSA to maintain a database of all Americans’ domestic phone calls is a violation of their privacy.

For those who feel that the surveillance is a violation of their privacy, the effect that the surveillance has had on terrorism does not even enter the “equation.” On the other hand, the issue of privacy does not enter into the logic of the NSA. The only way for the two opposing groups to come together in agreement would be for them to find some common ground as to what level of threat from terrorism is enough to justify the invasion of citizens’ privacy. Until the warrants of these two reasoning processes can match, there can be no common ground.

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