We all care about our personal and national security and about our individual freedom, of which our privacy is an important element. Measures that serve both are win win and thus uncontroversial, but often measures that enhance one diminish the other. How and when to use such measures (tools) involve agreement on the balance of risks between security and privacy. Striking the best balance requires public review and debate and constant monitoring as I have discussed before. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2016/03/24/fighting-terrorists-part-ii/
Tools that enable our government to collect information on and track individuals can enhance our security by detecting and hopefully interrupting plans to carry out terrorist attacks. The existence of such capabilities, e.g., to monitor phone calls, emails, payments, and physical movements, also create the capability of collecting such information on people for other purposes, e.g. for commercial or political espionage. Governments through out the world have used such tools to monitor and suppress the “undesirable” activities of their foreign enemies and sometimes of their own citizens. Limits and safeguards on the use of such tools can mitigate the risk that they can be misused to get private information on individuals for other unwarranted purposes.
Finding the best balance between security and privacy is difficult but important for our freedom. We know or assume that we know how Russia, for example, uses surveillance tools on its own citizens. We generally believe that our own government only uses such tools to enhance our security. But the risks of and the growing actual misuse of government powers for political ends (e.g., targeted IRS audits on political enemies, illegal surveillance of a government employee’s girl friend or wife, etc.) are challenging our, perhaps, naïve faith in the honestly of our government. Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified email and Russian theft of U.S. government personnel records are nothing compared to the temptation to steal historical data on the activities of Donald Trump and Mrs. Clinton.
The credible rule of law is one of the critical foundations of our personal freedom. It both protects and limits the extent and domain of our privacy. The principle of “Innocent until proven guilty” is an essential element of the rule of law. It evaluates whether an act has violated the law. In a free society people are not punished for acts contemplated but not committed. Acting against people the state believes might be likely to or inclined to violate the law, for example, that it thinks are likely to commit a terrorist act, would violate this fundamental principle of a free society. An exception to this general rule would be the arrest of a person having the instruments and ingredients for making a bomb and supported by evidence that he plans to make and use the bomb.
Following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC on 9/11, public sentiment shifted its balance between security and freedom in favor of security. The so-called PATRIOT act signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001, reflected that shift by infringing on our privacy and traditional rights in ways that would not have been accepted earlier. Moreover, measures that were initially considered temporary and emergency in nature have become increasingly accepted as normal. Even after a slight curtailment of the provisions of the PATRIOT act when it was renewed in 2015 most of these measures were left in place. No one seems shocked today that the government maintains a “No Fly” list based on suspicions that certain people who have committed no crimes might be potential terrorists. Such profiling unsurprisingly results in Middle Eastern Muslims dominating the list, a racial and religious discrimination that violates existing anti discrimination laws and would not have been tolerated before 9/11.
It is not unusual today to hear people who claim to appreciate the importance of the First Amendment to the US Constitution (freedom of speech) suggest that radical Islamist websites that attempt to recruit ISIS Jihadists should be blocked. Most of my friends are too young to remember the anti-communist witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy of the 1950s from which we coined the term McCarthyism. It was a time when a frightened public saw communists under every bed. Soviet spies, a legitimate target for arrest and punishment, were often confused with Marxists (communists), who espoused an economic system now rightly discredited. Those of us who still support freedom of speech believe that bad and pernicious ideas are best defeated with reasoned counter arguments. We believe that it is potentially dangerous to our freedom to allow our government to determine what we can read, hear, or see.
Edward Snowden did our country a great service by forcing a public discussion of what safeguards are needed to strike the balance desired by the public between their security and their privacy. I have written about Snowden before: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2013/12/24/the-year-of-edward-snowden/ I recently viewed the movie “Snowden” and the documentary about the same events called “Citizenfour” and highly recommend both. The Heritage Foundation has contributed to this discussion in the following half-day seminar. http://www.heritage.org/events/2016/10/cybersecurity I particularly recommend the opening session with Michael Hayden, who makes a number of interesting and thoughtful observations.
The level of discussion, which is to say the lack of serious discussion of these issues, in the American Presidential campaign is distressing. I am reassured that some very bright and thoughtful people are discussing them. In addition to the Heritage seminar cited above, the New American Foundation recently held an all day seminar on these issues that started off with an excellent presentation by Andrew J. Bacevich (starting at about 24 minutes into the video)
We can not remind ourselves often enough that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” And, we should add, courage.