Not concerned about your privacy? Great! Please email me all of your passwords, especially your banking and email passwords, and drop a copy of your home and car keys in the mail to me. You can find my contact info here.
Seriously, there are literally thousands of reasons to be concerned about your right to privacy, not least among them the fact that independent thought and freedom from fear of the government are critical, necessary elements in any democratic society.
Maybe you are in the majority in this country: you aren't from a religious, ethnic or sexual minority group, and you don't mind if the government spies on those folks. Maybe you aren't interested in politics and you don't care if the government spies on political dissidents. But have you ever done something you'd rather keep to yourself? Have you ever told a "white lie," maybe to your parents, to your spouse, to your boss, to your kids? Do you have any odd habits? Have you ever omitted a part of your story when discussing your life with someone important to you? Are there some things you think are your business, personal details you'd rather not share with the world at large?
Do you have any ambition to get ahead in your field? To serve the public as an elected representative? To be promoted at your job? To get another degree?
Do you use a mobile phone? A computer? Do you email personal information about yourself? Do you have a credit card? Do you drive a car?
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you have a huge stake in fighting to take back your privacy. As it stands now, over 800,000 people in this country have "top secret" security clearance, granting them access to troves of personal information about you and every other person in this country. Blackmail has always been dirty business, but with the advent of computer technology making it easier to store than delete data, it has the potential to get much worse.
You might have supported the Bush administration, and so you didn't flinch when he pushed the USA PATRIOT Act through Congress. After all, you trusted him. Maybe you were outraged about that, didn't trust Mr. Bush at all. But now that Barack Obama is President, you breathe a sigh of relief, thinking the worst is over.
Unfortunately, the power grabs initiated by the Bush administration have not been reversed by the Obama administration, which is fully committed to expanding the surveillance state. The attacks on our privacy and civil liberties have grown ever more damaging and pervasive. Why? Government seeks power, no matter who holds the reins. It's our job to fight to balance that with our power, the power of regular people to shape our destinies and our nation.
Putting vast surveillance powers in the hands of any government is dangerous. Even if you trust both Bush and Obama, can you be sure that the next administration will use its vast surveillance powers in a way you approve of? What has been built, no government will want to dismantle. Just imagine if a dictator seized power and with it the innumerable databases, surveillance camera networks, surveillance "fusion centers," and military weapons currently available to our leaders.
The best defense against tyrannical, absolute power in the future is to regain our liberties now.
No. To explain, let's pass the microphone to renowed computer security expert Bruce Schneier because his answer hits all the important notes:
Security and privacy are not opposite ends of a seesaw; you don't have to accept less of one to get more of the other. Think of a door lock, a burglar alarm and a tall fence. Think of guns, anti-counterfeiting measures on currency and that dumb liquid ban at airports. Security affects privacy only when it's based on identity, and there are limitations to that sort of approach.
Since 9/11, two -- or maybe three -- things have potentially improved airline security: reinforcing the cockpit doors, passengers realizing they have to fight back and -- possibly -- sky marshals. Everything else -- all the security measures that affect privacy -- is just security theater and a waste of effort.
By the same token, many of the anti-privacy "security" measures we're seeing -- national ID cards,warrantless eavesdropping, massive data mining and so on -- do little to improve, and in some cases harm, security. And government claims of their success are either wrong, or against fake threats.
The debate isn't security versus privacy. It's liberty versus control.
As Schneier observes, people who work for the government or in the terrorism-security-industrial complex are quick to set up a false ditchotomy pitting security against liberty. But as he and others have clearly demonstrated, the opposite is true: the more liberties we enjoy, the safer we will be.
Don't be fooled: you don't need to give up your fundamental liberties to protect yourself.
"Technology will save us"? Manufacturers of fancy homeland security computer software and technologies would have us believe that if we just had another application, piece of expensive hardware, or data-mining algorithim, we could once and for all separate the truly dangerous among us from those of us who are just trying to go about our business. Unfortunately, that isn't true. In fact, many of these technologies are the problem: they invade our privacy while simultaneously distracting police from real investigative work that might actually stop terrorists and other criminals from doing harm.
Think about it like this: ordinary people who aren't committing crimes don't work to cover up or make untraceable their digital footprint in the world. The people who work really hard to stay under the radar of our surveillance schema are those people at whom the systems are allegedly directed. See the paradox? Therefore the most likely result of all the databases, information gathering, spying and electronic surveillance is that wide-ranging dossiers on ordinary people can easily be constructed. The dangerous people? Well, they aren't necessarily in those systems because they spend all day every day figuring out how to avoid getting caught in the surveillance net!
The computer technology "solutions" are more about social control than security.
And that's to say nothing of the mistakes. Part of the danger involved in data-mining without oversight is that errors in the system don't get corrected; instead they get passed around to every conceivable government organization. The following clip from Terry Gilliam's fabulous 1986 film "Brazil" shows what kind of horrible things can happen when people are misidentified in computer systems.
Please note that by playing this clip You Tube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see You Tube's privacy statement on their website and Google's privacy statement on theirs to learn more. To view the ACLU's privacy statement, click here.
There are many problems with this argument. First, the 9/11 terrorists could and should have been stopped by traditional police and intelligence work. Second, law enforcement mostly uses their broad new powers and technologies to spy on and disrupt drug activity, not terrorism. Check out this graph, showing that the overwhelming percentage of government wiretaps are used in narcotics investigations:
You might also be interested to see this portion of a 2009 congressional hearing during which former Senator from Wisconsin Russ Feingold points out that powers granted law enforcement in the PATRIOT Act, called "sneak and peeks", were used 65 percent of the time in drug cases. Out of 763 total sneak and peeks, only three were terrorism related. Yet we were told we had to sacrifice our rights to privacy under the Fourth Amendment because of a terrorist threat!
<Please note that by playing this clip You Tube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see You Tube's privacy statement on their website and Google's privacy statement on theirs to learn more. To view the ACLU's privacy statement, click here.
As we explore in depth in other parts of this website, traditional policework really is the key to investigating and stopping criminals, terrorism related or not. As former FBI agent Mike German has said, making it easier for the FBI to spy on people actually harms agents' ability to find the truly dangerous among us. While the "reasonable suspicion" requirement was added to FBI procedure as a result of agency abuse, it actually makes them better investigators.
How? It forces agents to narrow the field of possible criminals down to those people about whom there is evidence of wrongdoing, eliminating so much time wasting investigation into people who probably aren't involved in criminal activity. Investigating terrorist crimes is no different. We must reestablish the reasonable suspicion requirement as the law of the land. Unfortunately, the dangerous precedent set by the Bush administration is being solidified as the other party, the Democrats, assent to and expand the surveillance state. It's up to us, ordinary people, to fight back.