The issue of censorship or surveillance has bee high on public agenda since the attacks on the World Trade Center. As Hills (2006) informs, the relations between states and citizens have frequently been altered to serve a wartime necessity. Censorship existed in the times of First and Second World Wars, yet the body of legislation enacted to fight terrorism following the September 11 attacks is fundamentally different. Traditional wars were waged between states, while the War on Terror is an asymmetric conflict and, essentially, a total war. It is true that the government has the responsibility to protect its citizens, yet it needs to collect sensitive information about citizens’ private communication to do that efficiently. For example, the U.S. Patriot Act – the bill aimed at countering terrorism in the wake of 9/11 attacks – authorizes law enforcement agencies to gain access to private telephone, business and financial records without prior judicial approval in the cases of suspected terrorism and espionage. The bill has been criticized by human rights activists as clamping down on civil liberties (Olsen, 2001).
While it may appear that non-state actors have more power now, advances in information technologies have in fact enabled governments to have a greater control over their citizens’ private lives. While there are national bodies and international organizations that track and monitor such development, they do not always succeed (Hill, 2006). The question whether greater privacy is worth the loss of security and convenience (or vice versa) is not without controversy. From one perspective, this is a reasonable restriction on privacy. Given that terrorism is an imminent threat to American homeland security, the state has the obligation to protect its citizens from this threat, even if it involves limiting their rights to a certain degree. Under the theory of the social contract, citizens agree to surrender a portion of their personal autonomy to the stare in return for law enforcement and other public services (Friend, 2006). However, a number of questions arise in this regard. To which extent can government limit the freedom of expression and invade the private space of their citizens? How can this be kept in check? Is there a possibility of the 1984 scenario in the current political climate?
Friend, C. (2006). Social Contract Theory. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved June 15, 2009, from http://www.iep.utm.edu/s/soc-cont.htm
Hills, J. (2006). What’s New? War, Censorship and Global Transmission: From the Telegraph to the Internet. International Communication Gazette 68, 195-216.
Olsen, S. (2001). Patriot Act draws privacy concerns. CNET News. Retrieved June 15, 2009, from http://news.cnet.com/2100-1023-275026.html