Security vs freedom

Security vs freedom

One of the challenges of democracy is how to balance individual freedoms with the security needs of the state. The age-old question becomes more relevant especially during and after real or perceived security threats to a state’s national interests. While mature democracies gravitate toward highlighting the fundamental freedoms in the mid-to-long term, that is supporting individual, weaker democracies edge towards limiting them for the sake of the “greater good of the more,” that is the survival of the state.

It was revealed this week that the Turkish National Intelligence Organization signed highly confidential protocols with some state agencies, such as the Ministry of Education, Land Registry Directorate, Turkish Airlines and the Postal and Telecommunications General Directorate, to gather personal data of Turkish citizens. Although this did not surprise many, as most Turks have assumed this was already the case for years, recent revelations about the widespread surveillance operations of the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States, though suspected by many for years, was news for most Americans.

The Guardian and the Washington Post reported last week that the NSA had been secretly collecting phone records and Internet data for six years. Though the starting point of the surveillance dates back to the 9/11 attacks, the seriousness of the situation became apparent when Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA, released NSA materials. According to them, an Internet surveillance program, called Prism, collects data from the servers of leading Internet companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Apple and so on, despite those companies having refused direct access to their servers. Another program for phone surveillance collects all domestic and international phone records to create pattern map without content.

While the U.S. has been tapping phone lines and monitoring worldwide chat rooms and Internet usage for years, the latest leak reveals a raw nerve in the U.S. as it directly touches the freedom of U.S. citizens. With the disclosure, Barack Obama’s administration had to acknowledge its surveillance activities and the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, admitted that “the information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information [the U.S.] collects.”

As many governments use these kinds of methods for the sake of national security, it was not a big surprise for the U.S. either. However, it raises a fundamental dilemma between security and freedom. The fact that the U.S. government was not only monitoring its own citizens but also everybody else worldwide prompted international criticism and concerns. As the Guardian reported, in March 2013, there were 97 billion pieces of data collected from networks worldwide. Many European countries have demanded answers from the Obama administration regarding the gathering of data on Europeans as well as the protection of individual privacy. Obviously, while the states do monitor their own citizens, they do not like others to do so.

Admittedly, in the age of cyber terrorism, data mining by states becomes an essential part of the national security paradigm. However its potential to become a serious security gap, as well as a serious infringement of individual freedoms should not be forgotten. Protecting data is a serious challenge for states in today’s cyber world. States need to be extra careful about the boundaries between their surveillance activities to protect the security of their citizens and their freedoms against the state and from the others. Otherwise we’ll be starting to talk about the security of the citizens in an Orwellian state instead of a liberal democratic one.