TOPIC GUIDE: Security Vs Privacy

"We should be willing to compromise our privacy in the interests of national and international security"

PUBLISHED: 22 Aug 2014

AUTHOR: Dolan Cummings

Share this Topic Guide:

Download topic guide (500k)


In June 2013, former CIA contractor Edward Snowden leaked information revealing that the United States government had an extensive surveillance programme known as PRISM, which monitored communications on a global scale [Ref: Guardian]. It also emerged that GCHQ, the UK’s intelligence and security agency, was intercepting and processing billions of communications every day and sharing the information with the US. That project, known as Tempora, had been in existence since the beginning of 2012 and included recordings of phone calls, the content of email messages, entries on social media sites like Facebook and the history of an internet user’s access to websites [Ref: Guardian]. These revelations caused great concern among civil liberties campaigners, who argue that such state surveillance threatens the privacy of ordinary citizens [Ref: Liberty]. Responding to the controversy in the United States, President Obama said: “You can’t have 100 percent security and also have 100 percent privacy” [Ref: NBC News]. In fact, while the specific details of PRISM were new to the public, it is no secret that all states have security services that monitor potential threats to national security, as well as keeping tabs on known criminals in a bid to prevent and solve crimes. And in the context of the global ‘war on terror’, governments worldwide have stepped up efforts to identify potential threat with many experts concerned that the current conflict in Iraq and Syria is a breeding ground for extremists, and insisting the security services must closely monitor anyone involved [Ref: Huffington Post]. The latest controversy in the UK concerns the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP), which gives security services access to an unprecedented amount of information about communications between citizens [Ref: UK Government]. While civil liberties campaigners see the bill as yet another unjustified attack on privacy, its advocates insist it is a measured response to security concerns and represents a reasonable compromise between privacy and security. The key question is whether privacy can indeed be compromised without betraying one of the core values of a free society.

For further reading use the menu bar on the right hand side.


This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What is privacy?
Privacy is widely regarded as an important right in free and democratic societies. Article 17 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation” and “Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks” [Ref: Human Rights Web]. Most people value their ability to keep their private lives private, to protect information about their finances, for example, and indeed to keep secrets. In politics, the practice of secret ballots enshrines the principle that how people vote is ultimately their own private decision - even if they choose to publicly back a particular candidate, nobody is allowed to scrutinise their actual vote. This protects people from being pressured or coerced into voting against their private wishes. Similarly, when we speak on the phone or send letters or emails, we generally do so in the expectation that the contents of these conversations and correspondences remain private. The idea of the state monitoring citizens’ private interactions is associated with authoritarian regimes and is a key feature of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, in which privacy is all but eliminated.

Limits to privacy
Despite a general consensus on the value of privacy, many argue it has limits. Supporters of the UK’s DRIP bill argue that it actually increases privacy by being more specific than previous legislation about which agencies have access to data; it still requires citizens to compromise on privacy, but with less sweeping powers for the state. So, former director of public prosecutions, Ken MacDonald, argues that DRIP makes the right balance between enabling the authorities to keep tabs in communications, without giving them carte blanche to snoop on citizens [Ref: Guardian]. Specifically, the bill backs up earlier legislation that requires service providers like phone companies to retain information about their customers’ activity for up to a year, in case the security services need to investigate them. While some see this as a sinister intrusion into private activity, advocates of the bill emphasise that it mainly concerns ‘metadata’ like the time, date, and originating and terminating points of phone calls, emails and social media activity, rather than specific content. Defending similar legislation in Australia Anthony Bergin, deputy director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, insists such data is akin to the ‘material on the front of the envelope’, with the contents of the letter remaining private [Ref: Sydney Morning Herald]. For those in favour of compromising on privacy, the key point is that such surveillance is no big deal given the rationale behind it. US policy analyst Loren Thompson argues: “…compared with the threat posed by terrorists bent upon destroying America, PRISM presents at worst only modest danger to our liberties. Its main purpose is to protect those liberties, not subvert them” [Ref: Forbes]. And defence policy analyst John Arquilla asks critics to: “…think about the world as it might be without such a sustained effort to find the hidden - to detect, track, and disrupt the terrorists” [Ref: Foreign Policy]. In other words, privacy might be important, but is it so important that we should risk national and international security rather than compromise a little?

A sensible compromise?
Internet privacy is especially controversial, as the very thing so many people value about the internet - the ability to communicate with relative anonymity - also makes it useful for terrorists. A paper by the US government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity group argued that: “…what started out as a benign environment where people would congregate to share information or explore fantasy worlds, is now offering the opportunity for religious/political extremists to recruit, rehearse, transfer money, and ultimately engage in information warfare or worse with impunity” [Ref: Washington Post]. In this context, it is argued that we should all be willing to give up a little privacy so that security agencies can keep an eye on suspicious online behaviour. Long before the latest controversies over PRISM, Tempora and DRIP, the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act (2000) in the UK [Ref: Guardian], and the Patriot Act (2001) in the USA, gave the state much wider surveillance powers, with considerable implications for online privacy [Ref: Electronic Privacy Information Centre]. Many citizens remain instinctively hostile to state surveillance of activities, whether online or off. Privacy advocates protest that governments have not convinced them of the need to compromise privacy for national security [Ref: Salon] and that the debate about ‘privacy versus security’ represents a false dichotomy [Ref: NBC News]. Indeed, a 2012 US Congressional report found anti-terror programmes were undermining privacy while gathering no useful information [Ref: New York Times]. And while the age-old argument against privacy is that: ‘if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear’, critics like law professor John Fitzpatrick argue that in a free society we all have the right to keep secrets [Ref: Institute of Ideas]. Just as the privacy of the voting booth is essential to democratic elections, a wider private sphere within which to think, debate and reflect beyond prying eyes is essential to democracy more generally. Like other civil libertarians, security technologist Bruce Schneier argues that: “Too many wrongly characterize the debate as ‘security versus privacy.’ The real choice is liberty versus control”, because if we are constantly under surveillance, he argues, we are constantly fearful and self-conscious, and not able to act freely [Ref: Wired]. So while it might be difficult to maintain an expectation of privacy in a wired world, some believe we must do everything in our power not to abandon it [Ref: Liberty].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Terrorist risk means privacy must take back seat to security

Anthony Bergin Sydney Morning Herald 14 August 2014

How the Drip bill will help us convict criminals

Ken McDonald Guardian 25 July 2014

In defense of PRISM

John Arquilla Foreign Policy 7 June 2013

Why NSA’s PRISM Program Makes Sense

Loren Thompson Forbes 7 June 2013


Privacy vs. Security: A False Dichotomy

Robin Koerner Huffington Post 3 February 2014


The death of Privacy

Alex Preston Observer 3 August 2014

In defense of privacy

Frank Furedi spiked 30 September 2013


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


This site contains links to websites operated by parties other than Debating Matters. Although we make every effort to ensure links are current, they will sometimes break after Topic Guide publication. If a link does not work, then the publication reference and date should enable you to find an alternate link. If you find a broken link do please send it to the webmaster for review.

© 2005-2022 Debating Matters Competition, boi, Unit 208, Cocoa Studios, The Biscuit Factory, Drummond Road, London, SE16 4DG, UK

Tel +44 (0)20 3176 0827 - | admin login