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An attack on privacy
By Elizabeth Stawicki
Minnesota Public Radio
September 24, 2001
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Throughout American history, when the nation has come under attack the government has tried to limit individual liberties in the name of security. Last week, the U.S. attorney general called for easing government restrictions on wiretapping and increasing government surveillance on Internet use. But as Minnesota Public Radio's Elizabeth Stawicki reports, some legal scholars worry that Americans will rush to relinquish their privacy rights too hastily.

George Washington University Professor Amitai Etzioni, a national scholar on privacy rights and author of The Limits of Privacy says before the attacks the U.S. was too engrossed in protecting individual rights. Listen to his comments.
The day after terrorists attacked New York and Washington, Hennepin county Chief Public Defender Leonardo Castro fired off an email to his staff attorneys. He said freedom was not only being challenged by outside forces but internal government forces as well. Castro urged his attorneys to be even more vigilant about defending the rights of their clients.

"In these times, people will allow those freedoms to be temporarily reduced. The problem with government is, government doesn't know how to do things temporarily. If they expand the right to wiretap, be assured they're not going to come back to where we were before," Castro said.

But are citizens more agreeable to intrusions? Minnesota Twins fan Linda Lahti didn't object when security rummaged through her purse at the Metrodome, a practice instituted when Major League Baseball resumed play last week.

"I think all of us are probably a little more open to those kinds of options that we were not before. Most of us want our individual liberties, but at the same time we know we need to make sacrifices."

That willingness worries Chuck Samuelson of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. Samuelson says the United States was founded, and thrives, on freedom. To guarantee safety against the kind of attacks on New York and Washington would mean severe privacy intrusions. He says terrorists win if citizens even think about relinquishing even some of that freedom out of fear.

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. "

- Ben Franklin
"Our economy is shutting down because people are scared to fly, people are scared to do this, people are scared to do that. What happened was horrible," Samuelson said. "But the real damage is not the 6,000 people murdered, it's not the building destroyed or damaged, it is our retreating into a shell."

But George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni, a national scholar on privacy rights and author of The Limits of Privacy says before the attacks the U.S. was too engrossed in protecting individual rights.

"We neglected our public safety, we didn't introduce them because we were afraid to touch our civil liberties. Now as we face this huge tragedy we are hell bent to go overboard in the other direction. Etzioni said, "While we do need some changes, I'm afraid that instead of careful review and consideration, how far we should go, what not do, we'll go in the opposite direction."

These are the most obvious areas where privacy will be reduced during times of conflict:

  • Greater degree of electronic eavesdropping and interception, wiretapping etc.
  • Less privacy on the Internet.
  • Increased searches at airports and outside of airports.
    Historians say that during a national crisis Americans tend to be willing to give up some liberties, but are more willing to give up other people's liberties. After Pearl Harbor, the government rounded up and sent West Coast Japanese Americans to detention camps for most of the war out of fear they were spies for the Japanese government. Those fears proved unfounded. University of Minnesota constitutional law professor Dan Farber says, in reality, even if the government says it takes away rights across the board, the limits aren't applied equally.

    "It's hard for me to believe that people doing increased surveillance at airports will treat Swedish women from Minnesota the same way they're going to treat men who emigrated from the Mideast just because one group looks like more of a threat than the other," he said. "Similarly, they are less likely to searching CEO's of companies and members of Congress and people like that than just searching ordinary people."

    Farber says the big question is what will the courts do. On one hand, he says, a lot of law limits search and seizures. However, he says during past national crises, the courts have often failed to uphold those rights.