Security versus Privacy

How would you feel if law enforcement started scanning all of your email, your file transfers, and your web search history that Google and other companies keep (often going back years)? The U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Michael McConnell, is proposing just that. It’s for our security, he says.

Security, after all, is a trade-off. We know that staying home all day would generally increase our safety, but is it worth it? Banning cars would decrease traffic deaths immensely, but is it worth it? We face a multitude of situations like this that involving weighing increased security against its costs. (This is to set aside the many cases where security tactics are mere security theater, and may be counter-productive).

Security weighed against costs — unfortunately this common-sense notion has been used to promote a false dichotomy in United States discourse recently: “security versus privacy”. It’s assumed that the more we allow privacy, the more our security is undermined because Bad Guystm can take advantage of it, hide behind it. Making ourselves safe requires giving up some of the privacy we’ve expected up until now.
security versus privacy

We will become safer, people assume, if we let the government look through all of our emails and web search histories, if we let them video tape us on the streets and in public buildings, if we are forced to use a data-filled national biometric ID in order to fly on airplanes or open bank accounts, if we are searched wherever law enforcement decides it is necessary, if we are, in short, presumed guilty until proven innocent. If privacy and security are a zero-sum game (as claimed by Ed Giorgio, the guy working with Directer McConnell on the internet spying proposal), then as privacy goes down, security must go up, right?

Not necessarily. As Bruce Schneier argues, we’ve been sold the idea it’s “security versus privacy” in the debate at hand, when in fact it is a question of “control versus liberty”. We may — may — gain some security by giving more control to the government, but if that’s always true then the safest place to be is inside a police state. Why aren’t more people eager to live in a police state?

Because in the U.S., for protection against abuse our system is set up to circumscribe government power. Law enforcement has certain invasive spying options for pursuing important national security and terrorism investigations, but it is historically limited to using such invasive techniques only for those essential purposes (not to catch and prosecute minor crimes). The only thing stopping the government from ubiquitous and pervasive use of intrusive spying on every American are legal safeguards — like warrants and judicial oversight — that make sure extreme measures are only used for their intended extreme needs. (Which is one of the reasons why the Patriot Act’s blurring of FISA court oversight has been so contentious).

Technology is getting to the point where Big Brother can be automated: as of 2006, Britain had one security camera up for every 14 people, and the U.S. may not be very far behind. Cameras now have license-plate recognition capabilities, and face-recognition (as well as gait-recognition) software is developing by leaps and bounds. Soon, our entire lives and all our actions could potentially be scanned for government approval. Our privacy is fading, even compared to other countries like China and Russia.
state of privacy map
However, our legal tradition (including such protections as the constitutional guarantee against arbitrary search and seizure) has historically put limitations in place to make sure law enforcement doesn’t get out of hand. In many cases, we require probable cause, and if laws aren’t followed by enforcement officers, evidence isn’t admissible in court even where guilt is obvious. (Otherwise, the government would never follow the rules and could arbitrarily detain anyone — including you — just in case they find out later you’re guilty of something). If every law was enforced perfectly and automatically, just about every one of us would be in jail for something.

Instead, we value our privacy and put limits on our government executive in order to protect ourselves. In other words, we require security not just from terror and spies of a foreign origin, but from the internal terror of a police state, from spies in our own government. An essential requirement for that security is a respect for basic privacy built into our laws.

If we start lifting basic restrictions on government power — basic safeguards against abuse — just because some higher up thinks it will make us safer from the latest threat-de-jour (be it terrorism, communism or something else), then we may permanently lose the very liberty that provides us protection from our own government going too far. Security is not the opposite of liberty and privacy; rather it is intimately tied to them.

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3 Responses to Security versus Privacy

  1. Luke says:

    “Soon, our entire lives and all our actions could potentially be scanned for government approval.”

    Somehow, I doubt it.

    I think that it is unecessary to access all personal computer details, unless cyber related crime is somehow grossly underreported, which I doubt.


  2. While admittedly some of my hyperbole is coming from a worst-case-scenario (or at least, bad case scenario) framing, I’m not sure it’s that implausible. Think long-run. It’s not what the government powers might be used for today, but what they might be used for later, if a future scare leads our leaders to clamp down on minor infractions or outlaw behavior that today are normal and accepted.

    “You do not examine legislation in the light of the benefits it will convey if properly administered, but in the light of the wrongs it would do and the harms it would cause if improperly administered.”
    –Lyndon Johnson

    Power, once granted to the government, rarely is given back. We must be careful mainly for the reasons we *can’t* foresee. The users may be well-intentioned, but well-intentioned people have committed plenty of atrocities thinking it would be for the good of the human (or just their own) race. And they’ve done it with the power of government behind them.

    In other words, (at the risk of accidentally invoking Godwin’s Law) we must avoid falling into the trap of a Reichstag Fire Decree if bad things go down in our country.

  3. KAS says:

    “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Benjamin Franklin

    When does it stop, how far does it go – before we say NO?

    Privacy is a liberty that we founded the country on, yet it is the most squandered in our current day… This is not a free country; it is a two faced one.


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