Monday, June 24, 2013

Sensible Security Vs. Paranoid Privacy

I've viewed the ACLU as a mixed blessing at best, as some of their laudable defense of civil liberties and social equality has been offset by needlessly obstructive litigation.  In the second category I'd include their lawsuit against the government's "phone spying program" that aims to prevent or detect terrorism.

The US National Security Agency (NSA) collects meta data (place and time of calls, and to whom) and likely records a lot of calls made overseas as well.  It is not clear from news reports if their analysts can mine that data and access recorded conversations without a court order.  Even if they can, I'm fine with it so long as there are stringent penalties for misuse or unauthorized disclosure of such information, e.g., to expose extra-marital affairs or other embarrassing but non-criminal acts.

In a dangerous and uncertain time when there are inevitably those living within the US who'd like to do us harm I'd much rather choose security over some loss of privacy.  That includes measures like widespread video surveillance in public places, a national ID card, a national gun registry, some degree of profiling as I wrote in August 2009, and yes, electronic eavesdropping.  Tom Friedman in his June 11 Times column voices a lot of my thoughts except that I'd not so "reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining" but strongly endorse it.  In the same spirit I consider Bradley Manning who sent a trove of secret State cables to Wikileaks and NSA leaker Edward Snowden (if the US ever gets him) to be deserving of stiff jail terms. 

Many Americans agree with me, though poll results over the past couple of weeks vary depending on whom you ask and how you frame the questions.  According to USA Today on June 18, most Americans support prosecuting Snowden who is sought by the US and is for now in Russia.  There's an age divide, with the younger generation much more supportive of Snowden's leaks, which I attribute to their naivete.  After all, this is the demographic that helped Obama top a more capable and qualified Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic Primary. (Sorry, past and present Obama fans, I couldn't resist this dig.)

Curiously, I see some mainstream media reports referring to Snowden and even Manning as "whistle blowers" which is a term for exposing illegality or wrongdoing.  That is not the case here, as they've instead leaked secret but legal acts or communications, so the the term "whistle blower" shouldn't be debased by applying it to them.

About the other security measures I reeled off above, to my mind privacy for privacy's sake is overrated, especially when it tips the scales heavily in favor of criminals.  Why not introduce a national ID?  Accompanied by biometric markers it would be much harder to fake and could significantly impede identity theft.  It could also make life for the truly innocent and harmless more convenient, as in airport security screening.

Why not have everyone's DNA and fingerprints in a national registry along with criminal information, so long as access to it is graduated and available to the authority only to the extent justified?  For example, police officers making a traffic stop could access if there are any outstanding arrest warrants for anyone they pull over, but not prior convictions that could prejudice them.  This type of comprehensive registry would enormously expedite and ensure detection and apprehending of the guilty if their DNA or fingerprints are found at the crime scene.  For the same reason we should indeed have not just a national gun registry but also to the extent feasible the ballistic records of every weapon to make criminal forensics more effective.

Privacy is another term for concealment, and I can see why we'd want things like our bedroom behavior, non-criminal fetishes or even some misdemeanor offenses to be inaccessible to the public at large.  But that's very different from information we're talking about here, which can seriously impede crime, terrorism and other really bad stuff.  Modern technology makes it possible for us to not just store vast amounts of useful information about people but also to selectively restrict access to it.

Of course, data hacking and cyber security failures can expose secret information but that happens anyway in other settings like email and other records, and lapses can be mitigated with extra care.  After all, our banks, the Pentagon and the CIA do not avoid collecting and storing confidential information in electronic format just 'cause this can possibly be hacked. The same logic should apply to keeping relevant and useful information about all Americans in a common, well secured database.

So while the ACLU and libertarians keep crusading against NSA "excesses" like warehousing electronic communications and centralized databases  I view most of these as sensible measures to make us safer.


Anonymous said...

I agree we should have a National ID card. After all how do you prove you're an American? Driver licence, AARP membership? Credit card? Speaking English? I know some third generation white kids that can't speak.

Anonymous said...

To your point that privacy is overrated, Disraeli once said, letters may be opened by the gov't but the recipient should eventually be notified that his mail has been opened. Where's the balance in today's society?


Sarbmeet Kanwal said...

agree with you wholeheartedly! The privacy concern in this country goes a bit too far. A basic problem seems to be a fundamental mistrust of the government, even though people elect it themselves.

Sandip Madan said...

Thanks, gentlemen, looks like we agree among ourselves and disagree with ACLU and the libertarians on this one.

For those who think we're better off just trusting each other I recall a quote that goes something like: Believing nothing bad will happen to you because you are a good person is like a deer thinking the tiger will not attack it because it is a vegetarian.