Communication 4: When Does Security Override Privacy?

Los Alamos World Futures Institute
Student Intern

In today’s age communication has gone from postcards and letters to posts on a virtual wall and letters on a keyboard. Texting and email have become primary forms of communication among Americans and are the two most common forms of non-personal communication. According to a 2014 survey done by Gallup News, 73 percent of Americans say they send or receive texts on a daily basis.

This 73 percent was then broken down into two categories, those who send or receive texts “a lot” on a daily basis and those who only send or receive texts “a little.” Out of the participants of the survey who said they receive text messages a lot, 68 percent are 18 to 29 years old. The younger generation is the predominant user of electronic communication, meaning that this form of communication will likely become utilized at an increasing rate as new generations begin to use this technology. But is this growth an entirely good thing?

As more communication begins to take place in cyberspace, it leaves more information in a place that can be seen by everyone. In order to establish some amount of privacy, there have been state and federal laws put into place such as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). This law was enacted in 1986 and prohibited access to certain information stored online and was primarily designed to put an end to unauthorized government access to electronic information.

Despite federal efforts to subdue invasion of privacy via electronics, even the ECPA and laws such as this do not give the users of electronic devices complete privacy. The ECPA, along with all its articles prohibiting the access of private electronic information, allows the tracing of phone calls with the addition of a “pen-trap provision,” named after the device tracking numbers from specific phone lines.

This goes to show that even the laws created for the protection of privacy cannot provide full security because the government needs some information in order to keep our country safe. But when does the breaching of privacy step over the line for the sake of security?

Even though the internet, text messaging, and emailing gives humanity the benefit of faster communication at the push of a button, it leaves a lot of room for the invasion of privacy. While many people think of a malevolent hacker behind a computer screen as the main source of hacking, there are other entities accessing your seemingly private information. Take the government, for example.

Dropcam, the producers of cameras capturing audio and videos to be sent to a smartphone or a cloud, has received “a ‘limited number of law enforcement requests’—search warrants—for video from its customers’ cameras.”  In other words, the government attempted to access Information that is the private property of American citizens who may not have been aware of the search warrant that would provide the government with insight into their “private” lives.

The government had a motive for seeking out this information and, instead of confronting the person directly, electronic communications provide government workers with the means to find information about a person through third parties. Although in this case a search warrant was issued which makes the searching legal, these same methods can be used for the illegal activity of private individuals.

With the rise of electronic communications also comes the rise of electronic information, location tags, and personal information stored in databases that can be accessed globally. With the benefits of efficient methods of communication comes the disadvantage of having your personal life displayed for the world to see and, in some cases, exploit. Electronic communication has made our personal information much more vulnerable to invasion and has opened up an entirely new debate over privacy which has persisted and will persist for decades.

The Los Alamos World Futures Institute website is at Feedback, volunteers and donations (501.c.3) are welcome. Email or Previously published columns can be found at or