the individual rights of citizens. In the past, expanded government powers have been instituted to promote security during national emergencies, but after the emergency receded, such powers have normally been rescinded.1 Although this historical context is one crucial influence, attitudes have been further shaped by developments of the postwar period. The importance of civil rights was highlighted by the social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, a period also characterized by growing distrust of government; the latter decade also brought legislation designed to secure individuals’ rights to privacy. During the 1980s, developments in computing and telecommunications laid the groundwork for new challenges to privacy rights. The public consistently opposed the consolidation of information on citizens in centralized files or databanks, and federal legislation attempted to preserve existing privacy protections in the context of new technological developments.2 By the 1990s, however, technological advances—including the rise of the Internet, the widespread adoption of wireless communication, the decoding of human DNA, the development of data mining software, increasing automation of government records, the increasing speed and decreasing cost of computing and online storage power—occurred so quickly that they outpaced efforts to modify legislation to protect privacy, as well as the public’s ability to fully comprehend their privacy implications, contributing to high salience of privacy considerations and concerns.3

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, thus occurred in a charged environment, in which the public already regarded both business and government as potential threats to privacy. Almost immediately, the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001 raised questions about the appropriate nature and scope of the government’s expanded powers and framed the public debate in terms of a sacrifice of civil liberties, including privacy, in the interests of national security. Citizens appeared willing to make such sacrifices at a time of national emergency, however, and in the months following 9/11, tolerance for government antiterrorism surveillance was extremely high. Nevertheless, the public did not uncritically accept government intrusions: to use Westin’s term, they exhibited “rational ambivalence” by simultaneously expressing support for surveillance and


A.F. Westin, “How the public sees the security-versus-liberty debate,” pp. 19-36 in Protecting What Matters: Technology, Security, and Liberty Since 9/11 (C. Northouse, ed.), Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 2005.


A.F. Westin, “Social and political dimensions of privacy,” Journal of Social Issues 59(2):411-429, 2003.


A. Corning and E. Singer, Survey of U.S. Privacy Attitudes, report prepared for the Center for Democracy and Technology, Washington, D.C., 2003.

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