Should the government have access to its citizens’ data?

The role of the federal government in public privacy has been contentious since the explosion of digital data in the last few decades. A conservative position would argue against the intrusion of big government into the personal information of its citizens. A liberal argument might insist that the government should be trusted with access and use of big data. Both can agree that the safety of the citizens should be a priority, but a glaring question remains: at what point should the government have full access to citizens’ data in an attempt to keep them safe?

The 2015 attack in San Bernardino raised one such issue. The government, seeking to prove Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik’s guilt, asked Apple to unlock a cell phone. The FBI took Apple to court, arguing that public safety required Apple to allow the government to access the assailants’ data. The question posed is the major question in the government access debate: should the government be able to use Farook and Malik’s private information in a court of law? In the end, the court ruled that Apple did not have to allow the FBI to enter the iPhone, but Apple must disable the data erasure feature – when ten failed attempts at entering a passcode erase the phone’s entire data store. The FBI eventually hacked into the phone without Apple’s assistance, and no legal issues arose from the government’s actions.

So in this article, we will address the possible benefits and possible concerns with allowing the federal government to access citizens’ data. The San Bernardino iPhone example is just one example of government efforts to use personal data with hopes of keeping the American people safe. Former Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson aptly described the issues of data and privacy in 1949, arguing, “The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is a danger that… [the Court] will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.” Should the government have access to big data or does more access mean an infringement on the liberties guaranteed by our Constitution?


In the last twenty years, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have become prevalent in cities, transforming them into ‘smart cities.’ Big businesses, such as IBM, Oracle, Siemens, and Microsoft, have encouraged the development of these cities since it would favor the use of their products. Additionally, governments view these ‘smart cities’ as progressive since they are hypothetically more secure, functional and sustainable. For example, Philadelphia estimates that it is saving $1 million every year from sensors in trash bins that can indicate when the bin is full and thus, reduce the number of collections required. In order to maintain this smart urbanism, governments and businesses must collect masses of data on its citizens. Thus, for the good of society, citizens are giving up some of their privacy: there is a tradeoff.

Moreover, governments may also use big data to understand how citizens, faced with new policies and services, behave. Indeed, through social media, for example, governments can collect information and improve its policies to fit citizens’ needs and preferences. For example, the U.K. government has been examining how forthcoming policy changes are being received by citizens through social media. Although this has the potential for governments to tailor their policies, it appears that they have not taken advantage of this tool yet. If governments were to capitalize on data, however, this could be extremely beneficial to citizens.

Finally, in recent years, governments have brought up the idea of using big data in order to prevent terrorist attacks. In 2016, prior to planting bombs in New York and New Jersey, Ahmad Khan Rahami bought bomb-making materials on eBay through his public social media account. Some reports have even suggested that Rahami could have bought bombs as early as June. Had the government been aware of these purchases, it might have avoided these attacks. In 2016, William Roper, then the director of the Defense Department’s strategic capabilities office, claimed that “data is going to be the fundamental fuel for national security in this century.”

Although the technology to predict crime based on big data is not ready yet, it may prove essential in the future as the political and social climate grows more hostile.


Although there are benefits to allowing the US government to access its citizens’ data, such as securing cities from domestic and national terrorist threats, doing so sets a dangerous precedent. The Snowden leaks exposed many NSA surveillance programs responsible for intercepting internet and phone data, and in response, many large companies began putting extra effort into creating high-tech privacy software meant to keep their customers’ data safe. Part of the reason why individual privacy and security became so important so quickly is the extent to which the NSA was monitoring US citizens. The NSA’s criteria for establishing the breadth of their surveillance begins with an individual or group under suspicion of committing a dangerous crime. From there, the NSA establishes three degrees of contact to monitor as well. This basically means that the original suspect can be monitored, their immediate circle of contacts can be monitored, each of those individuals’ contacts can be monitored, and finally, each of those individual’s contacts can as well. In summary, “the NSA . . . can, without a warrant, put under surveillance all 2,669,556 potential connections [to three degrees of separation].”  Snowden revealed that the breadth of the government’s surveillance is massive and any individual may be monitored without them knowing it, and as a result, citizens’ became worried about the privacy of their personal lives. The notion that the government is watching your every move is terrifying even if you have nothing to hide. Everybody has their own personal secrets, and therefore, any perceived lack of privacy can be scary.

In a more recent example involving a case between Apple and the FBI, Apple refused to aid the FBI in their investigation of the San Bernardino terrorists by unlocking a phone found at the crime scene. Apple pointed out many reasons for why openly allowing the United States to access or hack into citizens’ personal devices has both unethical and dangerous consequences. First and foremost, the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution prevents the government from conducting “unreasonable searches.” While this example may seem like a reasonable event warranting a search, where should the line be drawn between protecting national security versus citizens’ individual rights? It is a difficult line to draw but had the FBI won this case, they would have been granted the first step in their ability to gain access to more and more phones, thus attacking privacy further and further. Additionally, Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, made a claim that in hacking into encrypted data to protect citizens, Americans may actually be left more vulnerable. Once a means to access protected phones is discovered, others with more diabolical intentions will be able to find it as well, which establishes even more risk to American privacy. The idea of civil liberty has been an important right of American citizens since the nation’s founding, and it must be protected even as the government in this digital world seeks increased access to individual’s information through the internet, phones, and other forms of technology.


Although it is used in an incorrect context, many advocates for the right to privacy use a quote written by Benjamin Franklin,

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” 

The quote may have been taken out of context; however, the advocates do have a point. Considering parts of the US Constitution, especially the 4th amendment, the founding fathers seemed to have believed in the right to privacy despite the lack of an explicit statement. On the other hand, we must consider the fact that times have changed since the 18th century. Much more damage can be caused to civilian populations now. As mentioned above, bombs can be planted in populated areas in modern times. Dynamite wasn’t invented until almost a century after the Constitution came into place. Both sides are making good points. Disasters can be limited by having analyzing data of soon-to-be-disasters. However, society could go down the slippery slope of the world described by Orwell’s 1984.

Hopefully, optimization can occur, and we can gain the much safety with minimal abuse of the right to privacy.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.