Privacy SOS

Many people who support the government's radical surveillance policies argue that we need to spy on ordinary Americans, on everyone, in order to make sure that no bad seeds slip past law enforcement. Advocates of government spying often say that if we can “save one life” by surveiling everyone, even if it destroys our privacy in the process, it's worth doing.

Many privacy advoctes take this assertion at face value, leading to a truly misguided debate: what do we prefer, privacy or security? Because, the conventional wisdom goes, you can't have both!

Fortunately for all of us, this debate is founded on a false premise. The government and the corporations that benefit from erosions in our privacy argue that we have to trade some privacy for more security, that it's a difficult but crucial process of negotiation, that there's a fundamental tension between the two, supposedly oppositional goals.

But that's not true. As security expert Bruce Schneier points out, plenty of security technologies that work very well don't impact personal privacy in the slightest, such as: tall fences, locks on doors, police carrying weapons, and burglary alarms.

“Security affects privacy only when it's based on identity, and there are limitations to that sort of approach,” he writes.

When he talks about security “based on identity,” Schneier is referring to security mechanisms that work by tracing individuals using personally identifiable information, instead of security measures that are based on proven protective measures. For example, “watch-lists” are based on identity, while reinforced steel cockpit doors in airplanes are protective and not related whatsoever to identity.

So in fact, security and liberty are not opposites, and making people more secure does not necessitate stripping them of their liberties.

Schneier is right when he says that governments that preach this falsehood are more interested in control than they are in security.

So-called “security” measures based on the identification of individuals, data mining and aggregation, and broad, society-wide surveillance do not make us more secure. But they do make it easier for the government to control us, put down social movements that threaten the status quo, and assert its authority. In the process, democracy loses.

In fact, when we place sensible restrictions on the kinds of investigations law enforcement can conduct, and ensure that agents possess evidence to support their suspicions about people, we actually gain both liberty and security. How could that be? The answer is simple, and has been articulated by people as diverse as former FBI agents to privacy experts. As Jennifer Granick writes in Wired:

Imposing legal hurdles to surveillance protects civil liberties by placing an independent judge in the loop, to check and make sure that there's adequate cause for investigation. But it also imposes costs that prevent a government with limited resources from pursuing the most extravagant, unlikely avenues of investigation. In general, this is a good thing.

That's such an important point that it needs to be rearticulated: law enforcement agencies are better served by legal restrictions on their surveillance powers because when they can prove that there is reasonable suspicion or probable cause to investigate someone, they don't waste time and precious resources going after people who might “seem suspicious” — or attract attention because of their appearance or background — but aren't in any way engaged in criminal activity. 

Anyone who tells you that we need to give up personal liberty in order to gain “security” either hasn't thought through the problem, or has a stake in the development of a United States of America wherein the government can control a captive, fearful citizenry. 

But that's not the America we want. Here's how to help fight for a safe and free U.S.A..

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.