detecting and countering their actions before they occur inherently raise concerns that such efforts may damage a free, democratic society through well-intentioned steps intended to protect it. One such concern is that law-abiding citizens who come to believe that their behavior is watched too closely by government agencies and powerful private institutions may be unduly inhibited from participating in the democratic process, may be inhibited from contributing fully to the social and cultural life of their communities, and may even alter their purely private and perfectly legal behavior for fear that discovery of intimate details of their lives will be revealed and used against them in some manner.

Privacy is, and should continue to be, a fundamental dimension of living in a free, democratic society. An array of laws protect “government, credit, communications, education, bank, cable, video, motor vehicle, health, telecommunications, children’s, and financial information; generally carve out exceptions for disclosure of personal information; and authorize use of warrants, subpoenas, and court orders to obtain information.”1 These laws usually create boundaries between individuals and institutions (or sometimes other individuals) that may limit what information is collected (as in the case of wiretapping or other types of surveillance) and how that information is handled (such as the fair information practices that seek care and openness in the management of personal information). They may establish rules governing the ultimate use of information (such as prohibitions on the use of certain health information for making employment decisions), access to the data by specific individuals or organizations, or aggregation of these data with other data sets. The great strength of the American ideal of privacy has been its robustness in the face of new social arrangements, new business practices, and new technologies. As surveillance technologies have expanded the technical capability of the government to intrude into personal lives, the law has sought to maintain a principled balance between the needs of law enforcement and democratic freedoms.

Public attitudes, as identified in public opinion polls, mirror this delicate balance.2 For example, public support for counterterrorism measures appears to be strongly influenced by perceptions of the terrorist threat,


U.S. Congressional Research Service, Privacy: Total Information Awareness Programs and Related Information Access, Collection, and Protection Laws (RL31730), updated March 21, 2003, by Gina Marie Stevens.


See Appendix M (“Public Opinion Data on U.S. Attitudes Toward Government Counterterrorism Efforts”) for more details. Among them are two caveats about the identification of public attitudes through public opinion surveys. The first one has to do with the framing of survey questions, in terms of both wording and context, which have been shown to strongly influence the opinions elicited. The second has to do with declining response rates to national sample surveys and the inability to detect or estimate nonresponse bias.

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