Why There Are No Winners In the Privacy Debate

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Privacy for ourselves but not for others doesn't make sense, but that doesn't stop us from wanting it.

Security cameras and smartphones brought the flight of the Boston bombers to an end far sooner than would have been the case had we not had such surveillance devices. And, while we often decry surveillance in public life, no one complained. This was not the case when cameras first began to be deployed for monitoring traffic infractions, recording business activity, or other aspects of public safety. Citizens were concerned about an over-reaching government, and the ability of law enforcement and other agencies to keep track of anyone’s whereabouts and activities, regardless of whether there were legal infractions involved. This concern ratcheted up after 9/11 when we were made aware of "warrantless wiretaps," got reports about the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) filtering email and cellular communications for possible terrorist activity, and learned of other intrusions that were previously beyond the scope of law enforcement but were suddenly allowed under the Patriot Act. (Read more about how technology has influenced privacy in Technology: Privacy’s Latest Casualty?)

Now, with the coming advent of new measures such as law enforcement surveillance drones, we’re forced to come to grips with a new way of life in which there is no privacy, at least in public outdoor places and, perhaps at some point, in private, indoor spaces as well.

Benjamin Franklin once said, "Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." It’s a beautiful sentiment, but does his admonition still hold in a period of global terror where any group or individual can cause the deaths or injury of hundreds, or even thousands? We have come to expect privacy when we, out of the direct view of the public or law enforcement, lie to an employer about a "sick day" while at a ballpark, go for an interview with a business competitor, smoke marijuana, cavort with another’s spouse, or do anything that we would rather not have observed by unseen eyes. So, on one level, we want privacy for ourselves.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what makes it difficult to arrive at responsible positions on these issues, especially when there are such extremes on both sides. On the one hand, some would have us believe that anything done to protect the general public should be allowed; others would argue that we all have an absolute right to privacy, no matter what the costs of maintaining those rights. The problem is that neither option seems very realistic in an age where both the possibility of complete, round-the-clock surveillance and extremist attack are very real. If we veer too far in one direction, we run the chance of morphing into a police state; go the other way and we’re likely to be irresponsible in the protection of the safety of our citizenry. We are, as scientist/science fiction author David Brin has said, torn between wanting privacy for ourselves but not necessarily for others. (Learn more about the security/privacy debate in the The Truth About Cybersecurity.)

In March of 2013, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg caused a stir on his weekly radio show when he said that camera surveillance is inevitable and, whether or not we agree with it, we should all just get used to it because there is not anything that can be done to stop it. Reaction by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) to the mayor’s statements was quick.

"It’s disappointing that the mayor shows such disdain for the legitimate concern of New Yorkers about their privacy. None of us expects that we’ll go unseen when we’re out on the street, but we also have the right to expect that the government isn’t making a permanent record," an NYCLU representative told CBS news.


Bloomberg also mentioned the inevitability of drones in the near future, which suggests that the whole issue of electronic surveillance will become more evident to all when the sky overhead is full of drones, whether from local and state police, from the FBI, from Homeland Security or from private security firms and individuals, who can purchase a drone online for only a few hundred dollars. At the present, there is no regulation concerning the use of drones in low-flying airspace, which means they present a threat to personal privacy, even within our own homes. Imagine them peeking in your window as you undress, make love, drink, smoke, etc. Worrying about this might seem overblown, but drones are already used extensively in military action.

So, what are we to think and, perhaps more importantly, do, about the explosive growth and use of surveillance technology? It’s hard to determine a policy at this stage of the game, particularly in the face of the Boston explosions and the successful use of the technology in the determination of the identity of the perpetrators. As a starting point, we all might consider doing the following:

  • Educate ourselves about Constitutional protections against search and seizure, technological developments, threats of terrorism, the success of technology in discouraging criminals and apprehending the undiscouraged
  • Find out what our representatives and public officials really know, if anything, about these issues. Press them to learn more, and to articulate a policy
  • Respond to the policies articulated
  • Learn more as the debate grows
  • Pull down the shades

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John F. McMullen

John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. MucMullen has a wealth of experience in both technology and in writing for publication. He has worked as a programmer, analyst, manager and director of…