Diminishing Returns: The Cost of Security



Senior Vicente Olguin goes online every day. He goes on Facebook, messages his friends, and browses the internet. He calls his friends and relatives often, and is thoroughly connected to the realm of information that is to be found on the internet.

And he is being monitored.

“I don’t think anyone should be monitoring what I do. I haven’t done anything wrong, and I have rights.”

As one student of hundreds at the school who engage in similar activities, Olguin is not alone in his concern. The presence of online activity monitoring is growing bigger and bigger, from the national level down to that of our local high schools.

“It’s really a serious issue,” Olguin said. “I thought that this was why we had constitutional rights in the first place.”

This year, thanks to the secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden, it has been brought to the attention of the American people that the National Security Administration (NSA) has access to practically everything we do digitally, with the intent of stopping foreign terrorists.

“It just sucks that a little bunch of suspected criminals ruins it for everyone else.”

Felons have their rights taken from them.

Murderers, rapists, thieves, and terrorists are those who have earned the violation of their rights.

Most of us have done nothing wrong, but we have our rights taken away “for the sake of security.”

That raises an important question.

Should we surrender our rights for our own safety?

Or will we risk our security for the freedom to express ourselves?

This is the dilemma of our time, and we are responsible for its solution.

Civilization, by nature, is a series of exchanges. Respect for respect, money for goods, freedoms for security. The objective is to achieve balance in the best interest of all involved parties.

Money is useless if there is no one willing to sell you anything.

Respect will get you walked all over if it is not returned.

Too much freedom and we have anarchy, too much security and we find ourselves under a totalitarian power.

So where should we draw the line? In the United States, today, several issues beg this exact question.

The NSA keeps records of who we call and which websites we visit. They have access to our Facebook messages, our texts, and our emails. These actions are supposedly overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, but internal audits showed that the NSA is, in fact, “mistakenly” collecting information in thousands of instances, illegally, and then censor their action in reports to other agencies.

Do we, as the American public, want this? Did we ever state that we want practically all of our actions online monitored?

In New York, the NYPD is under fire for its stop-and-frisk tactic, which involves the search of any person at the arbitrary discretion of an officer. There is no probable cause needed.

Does this sound fair? Does this sound legal?

The NYPD reports that 52 percent of those stopped were black, 31 percent were Hispanic, and 10 percent were white.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, both stopped blacks and stopped whites had, in total, approximately 16,000 seizures from each group.

For every 143 blacks stopped, one was breaking the law.

For every 27 whites stopped, one was breaking the law.

Obviously, It isn’t fair. It isn’t legal, either. The tactic has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge for violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Is stop-and-frisk so different from the 24/7 monitoring of millions of innocent people? Both violate the same right in the same way.

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”.

Not only does this seem to be the mantra of the NYPD and the NSA, but it was also that of the Soviet KGB and Big Brother, of Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.

Just because someone is innocent does not give the law entitlement to confirm it.

Of course, there are reasons behind the policies, but that barely amounts to a counterargument.

In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, the Patriot Act was enacted, opening up the government’s legal ability to spy on its own citizens in order to catch terrorists. This act allowed a margin of exception to the fourth amendment that allowed for the collection of foreign intelligence information.

The NSA, unfortunately, seems to find it too hard to figure out what foreign intelligence is, so instead of discerning, it collects practically all information it can about the citizens of the United States and then filters that.


NSA graphic

The NYPD has arrested about 6% of its 4.4 million subjects to the stop-and-frisk policy since 2004. That’s about 240,000 offenders off of the streets.

It seems effective, but according to studies, it really has had little effect on actual crimes committed.

In our lives as high school students, similar issues exist. Cyber-bullying has become more and more prevalent over the past few years, and the threat of predators online is as constant as ever.

Elk Grove Unified School District, in an effort to combat these problems, brought up their digital citizenship initiative on the first day of school to push for safe actions on the social media sites we all use.

The intent of the initiative is to promote responsible use of the sites and to deter cyber-bullying, and to have each user understand their part in what happens online.

The Lodi School district, on the other hand, overstepped its boundaries while acting with the same intent.

Earlier this year, a policy was enacted that mandated that club members and athletes not like, retweet, or post any material online that contained profanity, sexuality, or attacks on other people. If they did, consequences would ensue under district authority.

This policy was met with major pushback, as the students of the district protested that it violated their first-amendment rights.

Luckily for us, our administrators take a more hands-off, rights-sensitive approach to students’ online activity.

“You don’t lose your 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights, when you walk on campus,” said VP Tanya Bringuel, “Our concerns are with the safety of the students and the learning environment.”

There are, of course, certain limits to the freedoms we have, but those are a common sense exchange just like the rest of civilized society.

“At school, if you’re using school computers or our network, of course we monitor what’s going on,” said VP Charles Whitaker, “and if you cut class because of what happened online last night then it becomes a problem. But, at home, on your own time, you set the privacy controls, not us.”

The phrase that comes to mind, considering all this, is “diminishing returns”. Yes, measures must be taken to protect people, and certain liberties must be given up for the benefit of multitudes.

However, past a certain point, something happens.

More and more freedoms are taken away, and in exchange, we get smaller and smaller increases in safety.

Should our schools watch what we say and do online, and punish us if they don’t think it’s appropriate?

Should our country?

Should millions of innocent people be treated as criminals, or should a few suspected maybe-criminals be treated as if they are innocent until proven guilty, as the law says?

These oppressive measures are a product of fear–the fear that we cannot behave ourselves and be decent human beings. In the words of the founding father Benjamin Franklin,

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”.

It’s about time that we get back in balance.