By: Elena D. Lobo


The past two weeks have brought about events that are surely making many government officials and privacy scholars think about our current policies in a new light. In some ways, what occurred in Boston reawakened fears that we felt in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Additionally, in the same week, mysterious ricin-laden envelopes were sent to the White House. Homeland security is now forced to make decisions with respect to many of the issues we examine in a class like Information Privacy. The Boston bombing turned into a manhunt that upended what was set to be a beautiful, patriotic Monday; and suspects have been apprehended in the mailings incident. The main difference between these events and those that occurred in 2001, however, is that the perpetrators of these incidents (as far as we know, and as far as the news media/government has told us) were American citizens.


The aftermath of the 2001 attacks resulted in an overhaul of our privacy regulations. The Patriot Act was passed with very little opposition. Many were generally ok with it because the people we were being protected against, the terrorists, were “out there;” they were the “other.” Well, it appears that now terrorists can be “one of us.” Once again, privacy laws are being questioned, and similar discussions are taking place about how much privacy we are willing to give up in the name of anti-terrorism and public safety. The information privacy regulations once saved for foreign terrorism suspects are now threateningly able to be used at home. Does the fact that we have more and more American citizens participating in terrorist activities mean our privacy policies will have to expand to include more and more surveillance of Americans?


What is becoming apparent is that the once nebulous idea of “terrorism” that we have generally been so quick to blame for various atrocities we fall victim to as Americans is starting to bump up against a thinning border between “us” and “them.” And our government has to respond. In fact, all governments do. Scott Helfstein argues in an article in Foreign Affairs that security surveillance needs to become more globally cooperative. Of course, this sounds ludicrous. Why would we share our intelligence with say, post-Arab Spring countries, for example? We may be able to help each other….but would it endanger us much more than it would help? That is the fear, but is there a way to get the benefit without compromising our own national security?


As far as we know, the channels are already open for increased surveillance. In fact it is nearly impossible to know how much nonconsensual surveillance is already being conducted. We know that the CIA and the FBI can request access to emails sent 180 days prior without a warrant or judicial review of any kind. We know that FISA allows surveillance of international communications made by Americans. We know that the Department of Homeland Security trolls our Facebook and twitter accounts for buzz words that may lead to further monitoring. And now we know that the IRS can access our emails without a warrant, in the name of policing tax law criminals. (


Our laws are not adapting quickly enough to our changing environment. It’s a dilemma that can only be fixed by making more laws, and faster. But with that comes the fear of carelessness, and in an area like homeland security, that is something we just can’t afford. Is it crazy to think the next step may be a computer that can draft and adapt laws for us? After all, it would be faster…