Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The False Choice Between Privacy and Security In Times of Terror

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
--Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, 1791

Privacy or security--as an American citizen, do I really have to choose just one?

Last week Great Britain's Guardian newspaper reported that under "The Patriot Act" and "The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act", the United States government, through its National Security Agency, now routinely collects millions of pieces of private information about U.S. citizens from private companies. Verizon was the first company named as having handed over billions of records: telephone call data which notes by number who was called, the times, the locations, and the durations, everything but the content of the phone call. Later in the week the New York Times and others reported that under secret classified federal court orders, the list of companies sharing customer records also includes Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL.

So to sum up, all of the major U.S. telecommunications and high tech companies, the ones who in this cyber age know just about everything there is to know about you and me: they are now being forced (granted legally), by Uncle Sam to hand over that information. But it is all to prevent acts of terrorism here and abroad.  Right?

Is anyone else kind of freaked out by this or am I the only one?

I get that after 9/11 thing had to change for America, that for security's sake I'd have to give up some of my civil liberties. Full body pat downs at the airport.  Body armored cops at the ballpark.  Secret ops to find and capture the terrorists.  I get that in a time when crazy folks can put a bomb in a backpack at the Boston Marathon and kill and maim hundreds, extraordinary measures are called for.  But still the extent and the breadth and the enormity of this data collection program, code named "Prism", makes me nervous.

It makes me wonder how far we as citizens have to go in this exchange of privacy for safety. How much should we allow the government to secretly snoop into areas which just thirteen Septembers ago would have been unthinkable? How much can we trust the nameless, faceless, cloaked in secrecy bureaucrats and programs, which pore over billions of bits of data about texts, emails, tweets and phone calls?  In legalese just how "reasonable" are these searches and seizures?

"Well if you didn't do anything wrong there's nothing to worry about, right?"  That's the response I've gotten from many folks I've asked about this program. Business as usual I guess.  That's just the way things are now in our post 9/11 world. President Obama dismissed concerns and described the program as "modest encroachments on privacy."  California Senator Diane Feinstein downplayed fears by saying it is only "meta-data" being collected, cloaking her remarks in a phrase which is essentially meaningless to most of us.   

I guess I'm just old fashioned in my angst about Uncle Sam rooting around in my bank account or phone bill or texts. It is a truism, after all, that whenever government is given the power to do something they will push that authority to the limit. What once was personal is now public. Or maybe I'm a bit too paranoid about the feds to fully trust them. Is the NSA now somehow more trustworthy than the IRS? Congress? I also expected more out of my fellow citizens than the mostly apathetic collective response to this widespread and ultra hush-hush data mining effort.  In a poll, 56 percent of Americans support widespread surveillance. I was once a member of the American Civil Liberties Union--maybe that's why I'm worried. 

I cannot shake this sense that the government is taking us down a slippery legal slope that we may never return from.  A new time of secret courts and secret court orders and secret government activities and agencies, all cloaked in one seductive and familiar promise. "Don't worry. Trust us.  We'll keep you safe."

I want to believe that but then I remember what a great patriot, Benjamin Franklin, once warned.  "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Privacy? Security?  Do we really have to choose just one?


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