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Fear and Freedom Twenty Years Later: How Post 9/11 Security Measures Overstepped Privacy

by Ashleigh N. Dye

The threat of terrorism in America has gripped the hearts of Americans for the past two decades since the 9/11 attacks. This fear has, however, been monopolized by the U.S. Government. Immediately following September 11, 2001, government agencies were formed such as the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. Just a short time after that the U.S. Government passed the Patriot Act, a bill that gave federal law enforcement and other agencies greater authorizations for the surveillance of possible terrorists. The creation of these agencies and the mere existence of the Patriot Act serve as proof that the government has a way of using our own fears against us in order to infringe upon our personal freedoms and grab more power for itself.

In a report reflecting on the 9/11 events of 20 years ago entitled “What Fear Does to Freedom,” Reason editorJ.D. Tuccillespeculates about long term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, where major restrictions have once again been imposed in the name of public safety, causing many to wonder where does it end?

A more important question may be: where did it begin? Surveillance of the American people didn’t just start after 9/11. The National Security Agency (“NSA”) was created in 1952, and nearly from the beginning, the NSA has been known to overstep the boundaries of the constitutional rights of Americans. The NSA’s Fairview program enabled them to track phone calls between the U.S. and other countries. 9/11 was an opportunity for the NSA to gain the support needed for further and more comprehensive surveillance and the collection of the data of the American public. These pricey programs have fostered the idea amongst the population that more surveillance equals a safer U.S. Lacking is the evidence to support this notion. But as every government knows, the greater the fear that can be generated within the population, the more willing people are to give up more rights and cede more power to the government in the name of safety.

What evidence and leaked information has proven is that the NSA used the Patriot Act to cross lines and collect data from not only terror suspects but also Americans in the general population. The data, known as metadata, reveal private information about calls and other communications such as: who the call was to, where the call was made, and when it occurred.

Thanks to Edward Snowden, the man responsible for leaking the documents that exposed what the NSA was doing under the auspices of the Patriot Act, Americans now understand how fine a line it is between legitimate government surveillance and violating the rights of millions of Americans. Since then, the Patriot Act has been replaced with the USA Freedom Act. However, this has not stopped government organizations and lawmakers from trying to gain information from private citizens. As of late, encryption has come under attack by many, including police and the FBI. Encryption protects your data and personal information from hackers and others who could use it to cause harm. In turn, it blocks the government and police from having access to it as well.

After a mass shooting and attempted bombing in San Bernardino, California, in 2015, the FBI compelled Apple to give them the ability to access the suspect’s phone. Apple refused to do so, and the FBI had to turn to another source to hack into the device. It turns out there was no data regarding the attack on the device. The government has tried numerous times to compel phone companies, tech corporations, and other cyber-based businesses to give them the ability to go around the encryption on devices. Nearly all technology experts and proponents of privacy believe that this is a bad idea. There is no way to bypass an encrypted system and only give access to certain people. There is no way to ensure that hackers or others with ill intent will not gain access as well.

Over the past 20 years, the fears of the American people have been used to allow the government to surveil them in the name of public safety and, largely, with the public’s blessing. The lessons learned here are that no matter the scale of tragedy, the government cannot be trusted to use their security tools properly without oversight from the public and that we must remain vigilant in monitoring governmental overreach during times of crises when the public fear is at an all-time high. We must protect our personal freedoms regardless of our fears. We must overcome tragedies together without allowing our fears to be exploited by those whose job it is to protect our freedom and secure our futures.  

Sources:, eff. org

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