from an expert in the field:
from an expert in the field:
Neil Richards, www.neilrichards.com, is a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, where he writes and teaches about privacy law. He is on
Twitter as @neilmrichards.
Paul R. Pillar, former deputy chief of the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA,
is the author of Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided
Reform (Columbia University Press, 2011; not available at Costco).
Opinions expressed are those of
the individuals or organizations
represented and are presented
to foster discussion. Costco and
The Costco Connection take no
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Are standardized tests
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IT’S DIFFICULT TO say
whether Americans are giving up too much privacy for
security, because the government won’t tell us how
much privacy it is invading.
How can we possibly decide whether any sacrifice
is worth it, when we don’t know what we’re sacrificing? Ironically, one of the strongest advocates for
privacy seems to be the National Security Agency
itself, which demands vast amounts of privacy for
its secret, unaccountable surveillance programs.
It’s difficult to balance privacy and security in
another respect, because we don’t know the nature
of the threat. Politicians and the surveillance industry frequently warn us about the dangers of terrorism, but they are always vague about the nature of
the threat. They ask us to make a cost-benefit analysis with no sense of the costs or of the benefits.
Here’s what we do know. First of all, privacy
from government surveillance is not just important, it’s the hallmark of a free society. Information
is power, and unchecked power to peer into the
lives of ordinary citizens is a recipe for disaster. We
know the cautionary tales of civil liberties abuses
by totalitarian states, but America’s own experience with unconstrained surveillance is bad, too.
We know that the FBI blackmailed Martin Luther
King Jr. with evidence of marital infidelity that was
unrelated to his civil-rights campaign in order to
silence his criticism of racial oppression.
We know spectacular terrorism of the 9/11
kind is very rare, and that few people have the
potent mix of evil motivation, resources and skill to
pull off something like that. We also know that acts
of terror occupy our attention out of all proportion
to their actual risk, because they are dramatic and
rare. But, as with plane crashes, the spectacle grabs
us and makes us act irrationally. High speed limits,
unhealthy diets, alcohol and toddlers with guns all
kill far more Americans than terrorists, yet terrorism dominates the news because of its spectacle.
This is exactly what terrorists want.
In a free society, the people have the right to
know what their elected governments are doing in
their name. But governments have got in the habit
of denying privacy to their citizens while shrouding their own activities in secrecy. This is entirely
the wrong way around. Free citizens have the right
to know what the government is up to, and the
right to live their lives free from unregulated government prying into their lives, reading their email
and watching them surf the Web. If they don’t,
then they are not really free. C
perform certain functions in
the interest of security,
including domestic law
enforcement and the collection of information about
external threats. This is part of what is expected of
government. Democracies differ from dictatorships
in that those who carry out these functions are
accountable to leaders elected by the people. What a
democratic government does for the sake of security is thus not an arbitrary or unwarranted blow
against privacy or anything else. It is instead the
result of a free choice by the citizenry, exercised
through their elected representatives.
Such choices are necessary because there are
indeed trade-offs between security, on one hand,
and values such as privacy and personal liberty on
the other. Not even a free people can have unlimited amounts of all of those things. Exactly where
the people decide to strike a balance between security and privacy will change over time.
Security has understandably received more
weight whenever events have increased concern
about a threat such as international terrorism.
Combating terrorism is in large part a finding-a-
needle-in-a-haystack task of identifying potential
attackers before they act. Careful collection and
sifting of large amounts of data is an important
way to increase the chance of finding the needle.
Our government’s collection of information
that may involve its own citizens and their activities
is subject to multiple checks and controls. Those
checks begin within the executive branch, where
the chains of accountability run up to the president
whom American voters elected. They continue in
Congress, with appropriate committees being
charged with overseeing the information-gathering
activities of agencies such as the FBI or CIA.
Political competition provides an incentive to
uncover and root out any infringements on privacy
to which the American people would likely object.
The judiciary also has an important role, with court
approval required for the most sensitive collection
of information. In short, the privacy of American
citizens is the objective of a substantial structure
The actual compromise of personal privacy by
the U.S. government is quite small. Americans give
to the private sector vast information about themselves as they shop, make phone calls, search the
Internet and conduct financial transactions, with
little or no control over subsequent commercial use
of that information. Any infringement of privacy
by heavily controlled government agencies, for the
purpose of security, is minor by comparison. C