Tech vs. Terror vs. Freedom

by Amie Sugarman | 10/15/03 5:00am

Remember the days when one could check email without being bombarded by spam that offered "Spy cams to watch your spouse" and "Automatic email trackers?" Well, this blissful existence of yesteryear (literally) has been punctured by the advancement of technology.

Technological progress is typically viewed as a positive thing, as it eases countless aspects of daily life. However, technology dually possesses an insidious dark side, one that threatens to penetrate our personal privacy and freedoms. In his speech this week to Dartmouth students, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer warned that our generation will be forced to confront the impending conflict between technology and civil rights. He urged that Americans be wary of the possible encroachment on freedoms brought on by technology, and encouraged people to continue to debate their concerns in order to ensure that democracy continues to flourish.

Yet, the imminent threat that Justice Breyer spoke of has already become a reality, thanks in large part to the Bush administration. The USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act, which the administration pushed through Congress on the tidal wave of emotion that followed Sept. 11, is the pure embodiment of technology infringing upon our personal privacy.

The terrorist attacks of 2001 gave the Bush administration the opportunity, amidst an atmosphere of calls for reform to make our nation safer, to pass this piece of legislation in order to increase governmental powers over our freedoms. Even the name of the law, the USA PATRIOT Act, is a use of propaganda to make it seem as if passage of this act is our nationalistic duty after the tragedy, when in reality the Bush administration is simply pursuing its own agenda or broadened governmental authority.

This so-called PATRIOT Act remarkably broadens the government's range of surveillance over citizens. It empowers the government not just to intercept wire, oral and electronic communications relating to terrorism, as one might expect from a true piece of anti-terrorism legislation, but also relating to computer fraud and abuse offenses. This translates into giving the FBI the power to read your emails, listen to your phone calls and even check your library records without so much as even obtaining a warrant to do so.

At the time this bill was passed, the Bush administration promised critics that the PATRIOT Act would not be used in instances when terrorism was not at issue. However, according to a recent article in "The New York Times," as many skeptics had predicted, the PATRIOT Act has recently been used as a cover "to pursue crimes from drugs to swindling" that have "little or no connection to terrorism." Basically, the greatest fears of First Amendment advocates have been realized.

Attorney General John Ashcroft recently returned from a national tour in an attempt to garner support for this increasingly unpopular law. On his public relations campaign, Ashcroft was reduced to accusing critics of the PATRIOT Act of having "forgotten how we felt on Sept. 11" at a stop on his tour in Federal Hall in Manhattan. For the Attorney General to bring up Sept. 11 as a basis for the PATRIOT Act shows that Americans have finally begun to see the truth behind the Bush administration's efforts to usurp our privacy.

As citizens of a democracy with a Constitution that guarantees us certain freedoms, we must be careful that our rights are not intruded upon by technological advancements. We must be particularly wary of the Bush administration's attempts to employ technology to breach our privacy and freedoms, especially with the PATRIOT Act.