Skip to content

Privacy Essay Introduction

During times of national crisis, we, as American citizens, may be less likely to think twice about being subjected to government surveillance.  After all, it’s in the name of the greater good, and for the sake of protecting our country from terrorist threats, right?  It’s not quite that simple.  People shouldn’t be so quick to give up their privacy rights in the name of national security because this makes it too easy for the government to abuse their power and strip citizens of rights for reasons that may not be justified.

Now, some people will surely argue that giving up a few privacy rights is a small cost for making sure our country is safe.  In his essay, “Invisible Man: Ethics in a World Without Secrets,” philosopher Peter Singer suggests that people will be more honest and altruistic if they feel that they are being watched, referring to Focault’s idea of the “panopticon” as an ideal model.1 Human beings are easily influenced by social pressures, so I don’t question the validity of Singer’s suggestion, but I have to ask, what will this feeling of being watched do to people’s personalities and sense of identity over time?

In George Orwell’s 1984, Orwell introduces the concept of “Big Brother,” a figure that has become synonymous with the idea of government surveillance.2 Big Brother is government surveillance at its worst (if you so much as think about rebellion, “the Party” will find you and torture you into submission, however long it takes), but I can’t help but sense a bit of Big Brother in Singer’s interpretation of the panopticon.  The United States government may not be trying to control our thoughts and establish a totalitarian state, but will people still feel comfortable behaving naturally and “being themselves” if they feel like they are always under the government’s eye?  How long will it take before people either start feeling the need to be surreptitious about their behavior and take it underground, or start basing their regular behavior on government ideals for fear of being accused of a crime otherwise (although I feel like the former possibility is more likely)?

The government may say that it needs to circumvent certain rights in order to crack down on terrorist threats, but there are ways to do so while protecting American citizens’ right to privacy and remaining within the limits of the Constitution.  A perfect example of this is the US National Security Agency (NSA)’s pre-9/11 surveillance project, ThinThread.  The NSA was falling behind, technologically speaking, as America headed into the Internet age.  It was awash in more data than it could possibly comprehend with its information processing methods at the time.  ThinThread, developed by NSA crypto-mathematician Bill Binney while working with the agency’s Signals Intelligence Automation Research Center (SARC), was going to be the solution.3 Journalist Jane Mayer explains in an article for the New Yorker, that what made ThinThread ingenious is that, “Instead of vacuuming up information around the world and then sending it all back to headquarters for analysis, ThinThread processed information as it was collected—discarding useless information on the spot and avoiding the overload problem that plagued centralized systems.”3 ThinThread was so thorough and good at collecting information that it picked up intelligence on American citizens without the NSA intending it to.  As a fix, Binney built in a set of privacy controls.  With these controls in place, data on American citizens would remain encrypted unless ThinThread flagged it as a potential threat.  In this case, it would remain encrypted until NSA officials were able to obtain a proper warrant to access it.  The NSA could scour the world for threats and pinpoint specific bits of potentially significant data, all while maintaining a reasonably small budget for the project, remaining within the confines of the law and protecting the privacy of American citizens.  But after 9/11 that was no longer enough.

ThinThread was scrapped, and the pieces were used to build its follower, the Trailblazer Project.  Trailblazer was very similar to ThinThread, but lacked the privacy controls.  The government wanted to be able to search for people by name without the limits of the US Constitution to stop them.  (This justification doesn’t make sense to me because if the specific people the NSA is targeting are serious threats, shouldn’t ThinThread take notice of their communications anyway?)  In an interview with Mayer for her New Yorker article, Diane Roark, a staff member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said that when she confronted then NSA Director Michael Hayden about why he removed the privacy measures from Trailblazer, he reluctantly said after some prodding, “We didn’t need them.  We had the power.”3 Hayden basically admitted that the NSA saw following privacy laws as a hindrance and thus, decided to circumvent them.  President Bush actually gave the NSA permission through a secret executive order to go forward with the Trailblazer Project, even though monitoring American citizens without a warrant violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).  According to a March 2010 article in the New York Times, “Congress (has since) overhauled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to bring federal statutes into closer alignment with what the Bush administration had been secretly doing. The legislation essentially legalized certain aspects of the program.”4 Surveillance of American citizens without a warrant is still illegal, but that doesn’t mean the Obama administration has refrained from the unethical practices of its predecessor entirely.  It was proven in pilot tests that ThinThread worked efficiently and effectively, so I have yet to see a true justification for why the program wasn’t used instead of Trailblazer, which went hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and was ultimately deemed a failure.3 Not only do I question the NSA’s motives in rejecting ThinThread, but I have also recently come to question the extent of what our government deems a “terrorist threat” itself.

In his book, The Illusion of Progress in the Arab World, Galal Amin compares the idea of “terrorism” that we know now, to the idea of “communism” that circulated during the Cold War.5 He lays out the fact that the name “terrorism” is extremely vague and can be used to refer to practically any act that is “scary.”  In being scary however, no one dares to question it, not only for fear of being caught off-guard by it, but also because of the powerful stigma attached to the label of “conspiracy theorist” that is attached to anyone who questions the validity of a concept as large and significant as this.  But really, how do we, as American citizens, know exactly what terrorism is and how pressing of a threat it actually poses at any given time?  The United States Criminal Code includes a legal definition of “terrorism,” but according to the Oxford Companion to American Law, throughout the rest of the world, “There is no generally agreed upon definition of ‘terrorism.’”6 I’m not questioning the fact that our country needs to be protected from potential threats, but I am wondering if the threat of terrorism is as pressing as it is made out to be, and if the government truly has a need to spy on American citizens without a warrant to fight it.  During times of war or conflict, people’s legal rights should offer them more protection, not less, for the very reason that any national threat can be used as justification for pushing those rights aside.  They need to stand firm in times of peace and conflict.

A lot of people who believe in our government’s security efforts will surely say, “Let them look in on me.  I’ve got nothing to hide.”  In his book, Nothing to Hide, Daniel Solove quotes author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, saying, “Everyone is guilty of something or has something to conceal.  All one has to do is look hard enough to find what it is.”7 No one is a completely open book, all of the time.  Would you honestly be okay if the public knew about that despicable thing you did as a child that you’d rather forget about?  Or that secret fetish that took all the guts you could muster just to share with your significant other?  I doubt the government cares about the average citizen’s sexual fetishes, but that’s not entirely the point.  The point is that everyone has something they’re reluctant to share with the world, and if asked, point blank, to hand that information over, I’m pretty sure people would think twice about having “nothing to hide.”

Privacy laws exist for a reason.  Even if we don’t always appreciate them, they’re still there to protect us from intrusion.  We can always give up information voluntarily when it suits us; that’s part of our privacy rights.  But I don’t think it’s wise to give up our right to keep information concealed, entirely.  Even with privacy laws in place, the government has broken them in the name of security.  Taking away those laws altogether would only make intrusion into people’s personal data easier.  It can all start with performing our duty as Americans to help our government keep us safe.  We give up a few rights temporarily during wartime to allow greater intelligence to be gathered.  But after that, who’s to say that those rights ever get handed back?  And after that, it’ll be something else.  You might be asked for your phone records, your bank records, then your travel records; little by little, privacy can be chipped away.  And if we’re not careful, one day we’re going to wake up and realize that we don’t have any privacy rights left, at which point we are going to be left wondering, what the hell happened and where did we go wrong?



1. Singer, Peter. “Invisible Man: Ethics in a World Without Secrets.”  Harper’s Magazine.  August 2011.  31-36.  Print.  Accessed as .pdf from <>

2. Orwell, George.  1984.  New York: Knopf, 1992.  Print.

3. Mayer, Jane.  “The Secret Sharer: Is Thomas Drake an Enemy of the State?”  The New Yorker.   Condé Nast Digital.  May 23rd, 2011.  Web.  <>  Accessed: February 11th, 2012.

4. Savage, Charlie.  “Federal Judge Finds N.S.A. Wiretaps Were Illegal.”  The New York Times.  The New York Times Company.  March 31st, 2010.  Web.  <>  Accessed: February 12th, 2012.

5. Amin, Galal.  The Illusion of Progress in the Arab World: A Critique of Western Misconstructions.  New York & Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.  2006.  Print.

6. John F. Murphy. “Terrorism.”  The Oxford Companion to American Law.  Kermit L. Hall, ed. Oxford University Press 2002. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  University of Oregon.  <>  Accessed: February 12th, 2012

7. Solove, Daniel J.  Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security.  New Haven & London: Yale University Press.  2011.  Print.  Accessed in part as .pdf from <>

Like this:



Tags: american citizens, government surveillance, National Security, Philosophy, Terrorist Threats

1 Dr. Paul Chafe SSH 205-061 31 March 2014 Sacrificial Privacy With the evolution of Internet-based technology and the growing prominence of social media, users are giving up their ‘private self’ to both friends and strangers in the virtual world. Consequently, negative repercussions arise in regards to oneself and one’s relationships, as well the compromising of one’s safety and confidentiality. Birkerts’ article “Into the Electronic Millennium” scrutinizes these quandaries; it gives insight as to why Internet users no longer indoctrinate information in physical texts such, as books or journals, but rather via public social media. The abdication of the private self is evident in Instagram photos as well as the captions posted with these images. These can produce severe negative repercussions to oneself and one’s relationships, as well as a lack of privacy and negotiation of one’s safety confidentiality. Instagram user ‘angelaminh’ (found at random by searching the hashtag ‘boyfriend’ in the app’s search option), real name Angela Minh Bui, is a prime example. Her account is public and the photos posted for the Internet-accessible populace exhibit her renouncement of her private self. Both Mary Culnan’s article “Protecting Privacy Online: Is Self-Regulation Working?” and Debbie Kasper’s “The Evolution (or Devolution) of Privacy” aid in the substantiation of Birkerts’ text, elaborating on the reasons why people are willing to sacrifice their privacy, and of the waning distinction between isolation and publicity. Culnan’s article contends, “privacy can be defined as people’s ability to control the terms   2 under which their personal information is acquired and used” (20). Indeed, images shared on Instagram by its users are done so out of their own free will. Thus, these individuals freely control how their personal information is distributed on the Internet and to the Web-using population. Birkerts contributes this to the fact that “the idea of what it means to be a person […] [has] been much changed” (par. 44). With the alteration of technology; social media; and communication as a whole, users’ personhoods are shifting, too. This is done to incorporate their new public life as they slowly abandon their sense of privacy and individuality, which was once valued. For the case of angelaminh, in a photograph she posted in February 2014 of her driver’s license, any Instagram user can gather several crucial pieces of information about her life. Though most of the image is blurred, viewers can see some of the writing printed on the card. The state she lives in is evident on the top of the license and is noted in the photo’s caption, stating “I am now officially a resident of the state of #Virginia”. Her birthday is also visible as ‘04/26/1991,’ along with an image of herself (Bui, Virginia). In October of 2013, Bui posted a picture of her New Jersey driver’s license with none of the information blurred. Here, one can see that she was, in fact, born on 21 April 1991; that her middle initial is ‘M’; that she is five feet tall; an organ donor; and lives at 25 Robin Road, Apartment C in Mount Holly, New Jersey (Bui, New Jersey). Posting her likeness on Instagram is certainly not problematic to Bui, after sharing so much more with an Internet-using world that she does not even know. Such photos frequent her Instagram profile with captions detailing the events occurring within the photograph. In addition to the two photos of her licenses, one can gather additional trivial facts about her life through her other shared images, including that she has a male husky-chow mutt named   3 Max, who enjoys sleeping in her bed, as well as the fact that her skin is irritated by evergreen trees (Bui, Christmas tree, Max, dog). While at one time, Birkerts states that “culture was one which depended heavily on the encoding of information in poetic texts,” (par. 17) it now depends greatly on the encoding of day-to-day life on social media. People want others to see what they are doing in their daily activities and to see what their peers are doing, through applications such as Instagram. Using hashtags enables not just their followers to be included in these advertised activities, but all of Instagram’s users, who wish to search the included hashtag, to investigate the profiles that turn up in the search results. Today, “daily newspapers, with their unwieldy columns of print, struggle against declining sales. Fewer and fewer people under the age of forty-five read them” (Birkerts par. 12). As the number of people reading print newspapers declines, the number of individuals partaking in social media, such as Instagram, is increasing; people are finding new entities to be captivated by, as well as newfound methods of gaining information about the world around them. Kasper validates Birkerts’ claim in his article “The Evolution (or Devolution) of Privacy,” by explaining that while this occurs, “you have zero privacy” (69). Those who shamelessly post the intimate details of their lives to social media create this lack of confidentiality. The “desire for privacy [was once] a panhuman trait,” but this is now a concept of the past that to many, seems foolish (Kasper 70). For instance, posting one’s educational institution strangers would once be viewed as an unnecessary voluntary surrendering of personal information. This is normalized in today’s social media-using population, as is apparent in Bui’s June 2013 photo, captioned   4 “I'm officially a #JMU student now that I finally set up my email,” along with a photograph of her email’s inbox and ‘James Madison University’ written on the top. Considering the growing number of Instagram users divulging their personal information and private moments for the Internet-using population to potentially view, it is understandable that the “[media] speaks to [its consumers], somehow, about this weird milieu they’re swimming through” (Birkert par. 34). Users feel a connection with the media and reflect this impact in postings of their everyday lives. Indeed, Birkerts asserts that there is “a sense that important things are on the line” if we do not concede with the messages being output to us (par. 39). Consumers of the media gather information concerning the way they should behave and socialize with the world around them via the messages that they are receiving from others they encounter through social media, such as Instagram. According to Culnan, “people are willing to disclose personal information in exchange for some […] social benefit” (21); this is supposedly achieved by posting photos that jeopardize one’s sense of self, their relationships, and other personal and vital aspects of one’s private self. Many Instagram users would find this conventional, if it were socially beneficial. This active search for social movement may not always be advantageous, though the poster may not realize it. For angelamanh, giving up the privacy of a text message conversation between her and boyfriend was seemingly a good trade off, in order to inform the world of the fact that she sends him naked photographs of herself (Bui, text message). From another picture, one can gather that Bui’s boyfriend’s name is Stefan and that she lives with him (Bui, Stefan). Further, those who look at Bui’s pictures can determine that her boyfriend is in the U.S. military air corps and that she   5 spent New Years Eve with him during the same month that they celebrated their sixmonth anniversary (Bui, military boyfriend, anniversary). Culnan realizes that unfortunately, “meaningful and effective privacy policies for customers are largely missing” on social media (24). Despite the privacy policies listed on websites such as Instagram, there is a deficiency in meaningful enforcement and thus, how well the posted photos are managed. Furthermore, one’s privacy cannot be protected at all if users are willingly posting such personal information on their accounts without setting their profiles to private. North American society is making the notion of privacy problematic, due to their incessant posting of personal images and their resignation of the private self. According to Kasper, “The notion of privacy in American society is especially problematic” and “in sharing information with another, one relinquishes all reasonable expectation of privacy that the information will remain confidential” (70-71). Such relinquishment is apparent in other photos Bui has posted, including tattoos on parts of the body that would normally be concealed in public. In a picture of just her lower half by a pool, Bui reveals tattoos of a treble clef and a penguin on either side of her hips (Bui, pool). The majority of the Internet-using society of today, unlike Birkerts, is unaware that “the presentation prestructures the reception—the viewer absorbs a steady wash of packaged messages” (Birkerts par. 21). Ultimately, the users of Instagram decide what they should be posting on the application by viewing others’ posts; the images that they release are a reflection of what is deemed necessary to share with their followers and other Instagram users, or even individuals who simply have access to the internet and search the hashtags utilized in posted photo captions. In an ever growing close-knit   6 relationship with social media and those who have access to the images, a sense of isolation is diminishing, removing individuality as one’s posts lattice with those of others using the same social media platforms. Kasper finds that “the distinction between public and private [life] […] organizes social life, its culture, norms, and expectations” (74); this is becoming blurred with social media, including Instagram, which has shifted social lives; culture; and societal norms. Privacy is being compromised, the buffer diminishing, as Instagram users post an increasing number of personal photos on the application without any regard to the negative repercussions of doing so. Certainly, the notion of privacy has become a central part of the Internet-using society, most likely because of how these same people are giving up their private selves in exchange for sought-after social popularity. With Angela Bui (Instagram user ‘angelaminh’), any person with access to the Internet is able to view her account and learn many personal details of her life, which she freely posts to her unprotected profile. Both her safety and confidentiality are at risk because of these actions, which are viewed as socially acceptable amongst most of today’s Internet-using population. In fact, such behaviour is encouraged and normalized, despite potential negative repercussions. Birkerts’ article “Into the Electronic Millennium” discredits these norms, offering insight as to why Internet users who no longer indoctrinate information in physical texts such as books or journals, but rather via public social media, are giving up their valuable private self. Substantiating Birkerts’ text are Mary Culnan’s article “Protecting Privacy Online: Is Self-Regulation Working?” and Debbie Kasper’s “The Evolution (or Devolution) of Privacy,” which expound upon on the motives as to why Web users are prepared to sacrifice their privacy with such ease, as well as on the   7 vanishing division between isolation and publicity. Truly, the old ways of social communication are dying as methods of communication shift towards inventions of the modern day, but this transference may prove terminal for the possibility of any social isolation and privacy.   8 Works Cited Berkerts, Sven. "Into the Electronic Millennium." Boston Review. N.p., 1 Oct. 1991. Web. 9 Mar. 2014. <>. Bui, Angela. “First #snow of the year! I was surprised to Max's reaction. He didn't seem to mind it :) #dogsofinstagram #huskychowmix #pawprints.” Instagram, 8 December 2014. Photograph. 22 March 2014. Bui, Angela. “#happy6months with this guy right here. I love him more now than I did 6 months ago. I definitely love him WAAY more now than I did 3 years ago when we first met. We've definitely had our fair amount of ups and downs, but we seem to push through. I know I'm not the easiest person at times. I'm stubborn and hardheaded. I just hope he continues to love me, be patient with me, and never gives up on me or us. There's a reason we held on for three years and decided to try again. I don't see anyone else in my future but him... Let's hope it's the same for him. <3 he's my sanity even when he drives me insane. He's my rock. He's my heart. He's my world. He's my past, present, and future! #myairman #milsosweeties #heart2heartmilsos #mylove #boyfriend #perfect #lovehim #monthiversary #6months.” Instagram, 13 December 2014. Photograph. 22   9 March 2014. Bui, Angela. “Hard to see :/ #skinreaction to our #Christmastree :( #bumps #hives hopefully it's not too bad. Ps as I type this my arm is forming more bumps :(.” Instagram, 16 December 2014. Photograph. 22 March 2014. Bui, Angela. “I am now a #licensed #newjersian! #fastest #dmv visit #EVER!! One hour in and out!! #newjersey #mvc #motorvehiclecommission.” Instagram, 8 October 2014. Photograph. 22 March 2014. Bui, Angela. “I am now officially a resident of the state of #Virginia. #license #driverslicense #mugshot #finally #virginiaisforlovers I hate my picture.” Instagram, 5 March 2014. Photograph. 22 March 2014. Bui, Angela. “I love how my boyfriend would've found it funny had I accidentally snapchatted an inappropriate picture to the "my story" feature of #snapchat. #dafuq #fail #insensitive #myboyfriend #yeaaaah.” Instagram, 17 December 2014. Photograph. 22 March 2014. Bui, Angela. “Last few days the pool is open. #myday #tanning #layingout #gorgeousday #lazyday #gettingsomesun #poolside.” Instagram, 27 August 2014. Photograph. 22 March 2014. Bui, Angela. “(Meant to post this earlier lol.) Our dog is such a human! Lol   10 #dogsofinstagram #huskychowmix #lazy #pooch.” Instagram, 20 December 2014. Photograph. 22 March 2014. Bui, Angela. “Ringing in the #newyear with this guy!:) wouldn't have ask for any other guy (even though he looks kinda sloppy in this picture lol) <3 #myboyfriend #lovehim #myairman #milsosweeties #military_sweetheartsxo #heart2heartmilsos.” Instagram, 1 January 2014. Photograph. 22 March 2014. Bui, Angela. “#tbt Stefan and I first started datin again and I got the honor to partake in his promotion ceremony. #myairman #myboyfriend #iloveyou #airforce #airforcegirlfriend #usfa #milsolovexo.” Instagram, 24 October 2014. Photograph. 22 March 2014. Culnan, Mary J. "Protecting Privacy Online: Is Self-Regulation Working?." Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 19.1 (2000): 20-26. Jstor. Web. 9 Mar. 2014. Kasper, Debbie V. S. “The Evolution (or Devolution) of Privacy.” Sociological Forum 20.1 (2005): 69-92. Jstor. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.