Privacy and Freedom Is More Important Than Security
In the 21st century we are all online. That means all of our personal information is online as well. Even if the information is locked away beyond a supposedly secure password, it is online and available to anyone with the means to access it.
The 21st century has also been the age of counter-terrorism, and these two facts combined have given immense importance to the debate on the importance of privacy. As governments do everything they can to combat terrorism they have inevitably turned to spying on their own citizens. Is national security so important that it is worth this violation of liberty and privacy?
Should Americans be prepared to give up some privacy in return for greater security? Or has the government already gone too far in invading our personal freedoms?
We explore a few of the main arguments in the debate below.
You can also add to the debate by leaving a comment at the end of the page.
Philosophical Foundations of Government
Let’s start with the philosophical fundamentals. Limiting civil liberties and the right to privacy in the name of defending a liberal democratic nation is the ultimate hypocrisy. Modern, western liberal democracies exist to protect the rights of their citizens. The great John Locke, spiritual father of the modern liberal democracies, believed that all people were born with god-given rights, one of which was liberty, and that the purpose of governments was to protect those rights. If that same government is attacking our liberty and our privacy under the guise of keeping us secure, than it is betraying its very essence.
Yes, governments are beholden to protect the natural rights of their citizens, but that is just one of many tasks of governing. Even our friend John Locke would have agreed that a society (represented by a government) is ultimately a social contract, agreed upon by all its members, with the purpose of protecting the constituents’ freedoms as well as the constituents themselves. Without the social contract we are nothing but intelligent animals, writhing in the state of nature. When we sign the social contract (figuratively that is) we give up some of our rights to the government in order that we may be protected, and sometimes that government might have to infringe on our other rights in order to protect us. Our rights do us no good if we’re dead anyway.
Overvaluing the Risk of Terrorism
In many cases, invasive surveillance laws are passed amidst panic, often right after a terrorist attack when citizens are scared and desperate for anything to make them feel secure again. It was in such a climate, just after the September 11 terrorist attacks, that the US government passed the Patriot Act. In these desperate times people rally together, but they are also easily manipulated. It is these moments of crisis that prudence is more important than ever.
The hysteria caused by terrorist attacks is largely caused by a cognitive bias rampant in the human race known as the availability heuristic. The availability heuristic causes people to consider something more dangerous or more imminent when they can easily bring it to mind and imagine it. It’s why people are often more afraid of terrorist attacks than cancer even though Americans are over 6,500 times more likely to die from cancer. It is almost always because of these types of exaggerated risks that our governments take away our freedoms in exchange for security. But if we recognize that the risks are over-blown we realize that giving up our rights isn’t worth it.
First of all, the reason that there have been so few terrorist attacks in the last ten years is the direct result of measures such as the Patriot Act. It is true that people tend to over-value the likelihood of a terrorist attack, but I for one would like to keep it that way so that we remain vigilant. National security is a constant project. It is more than preventing individual terrorist attacks, it is knowing what our enemies are doing at all times. And that is something that we don’t value enough.
Why Not Use Legal Channels?
I don’t hear people advocating large scale surveillance in order to crackdown on drug trafficking. There are legal channels in which the police can obtain a warrant which permits them to tap a potential terrorist’s phone or his or her computer. These legal channels exist for a reason, so why should our governments bend the law and spy on us?
Terrorism is a much different beast than drug trafficking. Our governments generally deter crime through punishment. By punishing perpetrators of a given crime would-be criminals are discouraged from committing that crime in the future. However, in the case of terrorists, the attacks are often suicide attacks. The perpetrators of terrorist attacks are so ideologically driven that their personal well-being is of no importance to them. These kind of actions can not be deterred, they can only be prevented.
In addition, terrorist attacks are designed to cause as much damage as possible with as few resources as possible. The aim is destruction and terror. While most other crime is committed for personal gain and the consequences normally don’t extend beyond a small sphere of influence. Terrorism is a different beast and thus requires more advanced weapons to be slain.
The largely ineffective TSA is a classic example of what’s known as “security theatre.” Security theatre is a security action that is very visible but not very effective and thus gives people the illusion that they are being protected but doesn’t produce actual results.
When it comes to anti-terrorism policy, we are extremely susceptible to security theatre because of the availability heuristic discussed above. Basically, it’s more important that it looks like something is being done to protect us than that something is actually being done to protect us. Because terrorism is an over-blown threat and politicians know it, they can dazzle us with security theatre and gain our admiration even if nothing effective is really being done. Meanwhile this wasted money could have been spent on something useful like healthcare or education. What’s worse is that in this post 9/11 climate of panic, we’ve been taught that privacy invasion is necessary to keep us safe, and so we take it on faith. The violation of our basic human rights has become a grotesque kind of security theatre in itself.
Security theatre is a real problem and one that the security community is aware of and wants to eradicate. In fact, the ‘theatre” problem is prevalent in many areas of government. Look at the dubious effectiveness of standardized testing in education for example.
This issue is just evidence that we need to be out there trying different security methods and studying them to determine what works and what doesn’t. The fact that security isn’t perfect isn’t a reason to abandon it. We don’t apply that reasoning to any other aspect of knowledge, so why would we apply it here?
Beyond National Security
Let’s stop worrying about national security for a moment and worry about personal security. Thanks to the increasing digitization of every aspect of our lives, it is becoming easier and easier for companies and the government to mine our personal data. This digitization of our reality is sending us down a very slippery slope into a world in which every aspect of our being is being monitored by corporations. “But wait,” you might be saying, “corporations can’t use my data without my permission, and I won’t give it to them!” Well, you’re correct in that corporations need your permission to use your data, but what’s terrifying is that you’re actually going to give it to them.
As more aspects of our personal lives become connected to the internet, we become more and more easy to spy on. Corporations will learn to take advantage of all this information, and they’ll also come up with ways to make us comply. For example, the John Hancock Company has announced that they will give discounts on health insurance to customers who meet certain requirements based on their FitBit data. Of course, the company says you don’t have to participate, but you want cheap health insurance don’t you? These types of policies will only become more prevalent, and eventually corporations and even the government may require you to plug into their spy networks in exchange for access to services as essential as welfare or applying for a job.
First they tell us we need to give up our rights in exchange for national security, next we're giving up our rights for cheaper health insurance.
The most important job of government is to “secure the general welfare” of its citizens.
The most important job of government is to “secure the general welfare” of its citizens. Security is a common good that is promised to all Americans, and it must outweigh any personal concerns about privacy. The word “privacy” is not found in the US Constitution so it cannot be claimed as a fundamental right.
The right to privacy lie behind the 4th Amendment to the Constitution, which bans unreasonable “search and seizure”. When the government collects and shares information about its citizens, it is conducting an electronic version of such banned searches.
Surveillance is the secret watching of suspects’ private activities.
Surveillance is the secret watching of suspects’ private activities. In the past this usually involved following people, or going through their trash. These days it is mostly electronic, with the police and intelligence agencies listening into private phone conversations or reading emails (wiretapping). Surveillance can also involve looking at bank account details to see where money comes and goes. All these are vital tools for tracking the actions of terrorists when they are planning attacks. The government cannot stand by and wait until criminal acts are carried out: it must stop attacks before they happen.
Any idea that increases the power of government agencies should be rejected. In the past, government agencies (for example, the IRS tax authorities) have misused their power over citizens. More power means a greater potential for abuse.
Tighter security controls at airports and borders will help prevent attacks and loss of life.
Tighter security controls at airports and borders will help prevent attacks and loss of life. Such measures could include more intrusive scanning, body searches, watch lists, etc. In addition to their deterrence effect, they will enable officials to stop attacks as they are happening.
Tighter security controls can also be used to target particular ethnic and religious groups in a way that is unfair and biased. This is bad in itself, but it also risks setting such groups against our society and creating more future terrorists. If Osama Bin Laden is saying that America is at war with Islam, picking on Muslims at airports because they have brown skin and Arabic-sounding names only plays into his hands.
Tighter immigration laws and tougher entry measures can be used.
Tighter immigration laws and tougher entry measures can be used to reduce the chances of terrorists entering America. For example, travellers from certain countries can be made to get visa papers before their journey. Airlines flying to the USA now have to pass lists of their passengers to the authorities before they take off for America. Some passengers could be given searching interviews on arrival.
Measures aimed at travellers to the USA affect the innocent as well as the guilty. This is especially true in the case of foreign nationals. Tighter entry controls may keep out foreigners (for example, scientists, tourists, students) whose skills and money could be good for the United States. In any case, many terrorist attacks around the world have been carried out by citizens against their own country, not by foreigners.
Most rights are not (absolute) unlimited but have to be balanced against other rights.
Most rights are not (absolute) unlimited but have to be balanced against other rights. For example, the right to free speech does not allow you to shout fire in a crowded theatre, because people may be killed in a rush for the exits. In the same way, any right to privacy is by no means absolute, and Americans already allow the government to control some of their private actions. For example, the government can require drivers to wear safety belts. Any intrusions on privacy for the sake of security would be minimal, and the most important rights would still be respected.
History has shown that the excuse of national security has often led to the loss of basic rights. For example, Japanese-American citizens were locked up during World War II on security grounds. We should not allow the government to take even small steps in a direction that can lead to something worse.
We are at war at present and so different rules need to apply from times of peace.
We are at war at present and so different rules need to apply from times of peace. As Commander-in-Chief the President is allowed to take steps to make sure the country and its people are kept safe. Compared to conscripting people into the military, some loss of privacy is a small price to pay. Once the threats America is facing are over, normal rights to privacy could return.
The war on terror is not a war like World War II. The enemy is not a state and it is not clear how victory will be reached. This means any loss of privacy will be open ended and may last for many years. But even in times of war, America’s strength is in our rights and freedoms. It is American individualism and personal freedom that our enemies often hate the most. By changing our society to make us less free we are playing into their hands. A victory at the cost of the liberties that make our society great is not worth having.
What do you think?