How far should the government go to protect citizens?

In the US, it is not unheard of that ‘The Man’ or ‘Big Brother’ is spying on us; that they have tapped our phones and spy on our conversations. Some think this represses our rights as individuals. But is this an American mindset, or something prevalent across the globe? Recently, American spies were found in Brazil, shocking their president and angering her to the point of canceling her visit to the White House. This could be proof of America’s widespread paranoia, and the need to have a finger in everybody’s pot. But we aren’t the only ones.

Brazil’s Take on National Security

The Brazilian intelligence agency, known as the ABIN, planted a spy in an anti-government group in February 2013.  The Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre (Xingu Alive Forever Movement), an activist group from Altamira, Pará, is against the construction of the controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River in northern Brazil. The spy was uncovered and confessed under pressure. Many Brazilian groups have condemned this intelligence agency and its infringement upon the rights of citizens to meet and enact social change. The ABIN was the successor of an agency called the National Intelligence Service, known for its work in spying on popular labor groups during the time of military dictatorship in Brazil. Many fear that the ABIN hasn’t moved far enough away from these practices, and maybe even encourage totalitarian styles of spying and intelligence gathering.

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff reacted intensely over hearing about the NSA’s spying on her country’s (and her personal) communications. The NSA’s “violation of human rights and civil liberties” is unacceptable to her. If she has the view that reading emails and intercepting phone calls is a violation of human rights, then we can certainly see how different nations perceive this idea of preserving national safety. Her claim that it disrespects national sovereignty makes it sound like the United States doesn’t trust its allies to properly defend themselves or address threats to the United States.

China’s Take

In China’s case, the government takes national security so far as to limit how many children a family can have. Overpopulation threatens the limited resources of a nation and puts greater pressure on the government to keep the existing population safe. Perhaps forcing abortions of 7 and 8 month developed fetuses and making families pay hefty fees for having more than one child is a bit extreme. In China individual rights are, obviously, seen as a lower priority to national security. What the Chinese people give up for national security is one of their most personal freedoms.

In Introduction to International Political Economy, 6th Edition, by Balaam and Dillman, “structuralists have been particularly vocal about four interrelated surveillance issues” (224). The issue behind this is the fact that the government might be acting without authority. The structuralist perspective has to do with the balance of power within a state, and with surveillance-style government, it seems like the authorities have too much power compared to individual freedoms. Jonathan Turley points out that there are many policies that violate the very American freedoms that we champion (224). Thus is the perspective presented in the textbook (page 224, chapter 9).



The NSA does not just stick to American soil. The recent allegation that the Brazilian President made against the NSA is a prime example. The apparent “illegal act of intercepting communications and data of citizens, businesses and members of the Brazilian government” that the NSA performed can be seen in different views. President Rousseff is upset about it, made apparent in the article, and in fact wants an apology from Obama and the US. Not only was the move illegal, it also violates the privacy of the citizens of a different country. People will argue that there has to be boundaries as to what the NSA should be able to do. There are still debates over if they should be able to spy on their own citizens, much less other countries. One could argue that national security is just that, national. It should not extend past the boundaries of the nation.

That argument could also be flipped around. Because NSA is supposed to keep the nation secure, it needs to know what other nations are doing. From this viewpoint, Obama has nothing to apologize for. The NSA cannot guard the US without knowing who is plotting against it.


The question “can national security and freedom be reconciled?” is one that all countries face. This poses many problems and puts the United States government in a compromising position.

It is clear the question of national security and freedom can be argued either way. Some see this extreme surveillance as a matter of defense and as a proactive, precautionary measure, whereas others view it as a violation of privacy. When confronted about the issue, a spokesman from the White House stated that President Obama has called for a “broad review” of U.S. Intelligence activity, therefore a change will most likely be applied to the way the NSA gathers information. In the case of surveillance of another country’s people, the case of security and freedom is difficult to reconcile.

In defense of the National Security Agency, and according to their website, their goal is to “save lives, defend vital networks, and advance our Nation’s goals and alliances,” but have they gone too far? When do they cross the border from efficient and strong, into infringing and unfair? The idea of national security is present in every regime, whether democratic or tyrannical, but there is a wrong way and a right way to go about it. The only problem is: how can we tell which is which?


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