Weighing Privacy versus Security

June 11th, 2013

In the past few days, I’ve heard and read the words “Big Brother” and discussed George Orwell and his work, 1984, more than I did in the year 1984 or the preceding years.

Benjamin Franklin is also being quoted a lot.  Recall that he once said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”  We heard that quote quite a bit when we first started submitting to pat downs from TSA officers and having our shampoo and water bottles confiscated at airport checkpoints.

With all the recent leaks about data gathering activities by the National Security Agency, we are discussing this basic question again.  How much privacy are we willing to give up in exchange for our national security?

To say that this is a complicated question is probably the understatement of the century. After 9/11 one frequent observation of pundits was that our very open and free society could be our ultimate undoing in a war waged against terrorism.  We addressed this concern by putting programs in place that results in infringement of our privacy.

Now the question of the day is exactly how far do we want this to go?  Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who shared government secrets about the wide extent of data mining to The Guardian newspaper is quoted as saying that with the clearances he had available to him he could have looked deeply into the private phone calls and emails of any American he chose to investigate.

His statement is only partially true.  He may have had been able to do that, but doing it would be illegal.  That’s kind of like saying that you have the ability to rob the Brinks truck because you notice the driver always leaves the truck unattended when he stops for a latte at 3pm every day.  Just because you could do it doesn’t mean you can lawfully do it.

Still, that begs another question.  How many protections are in place to assure that the information in the government’s possession isn’t misused?  To me, that’s the problem.  Currently, the law requires several layers of protection including Congress and the Courts for anyone to dig into the available information beyond the most superficial level.  That doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen and every American is entitled to absolute assurance that their right to privacy is maintained.  As of today, I don’t think they’ve done a great job of providing that assurance.

According to a recent Rasmussen poll, 68% of Americans believe that the government is currently listening into private phone conversations.  It’s a paranoia that we haven’t seen since Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio program sweeping the country, or do we actually all have a legitimate concern?

Most analysts suggest that Snowden’s revelations have done enormous harm to our security.  Any time the enemy knows what we’re up to, that is indeed a problem. But relinquishing our freedoms to a government which recently has shown itself to be too big and not always responsible with respecting our rights is equally problematic.

We are about to begin one of the biggest debates about the direction of our country that we’ve had in years.