Saturday, December 3, 2011

Safety, Privacy and Surveillance

There is a natural push and pull between safety and privacy, but the Information Age is changing the tactics of this contest so quickly that it is hard for legal systems, military and police, and private citizens to keep up.

Alert reader Olaf sent me a link to story featured on National Public Radio this week about the new book "Constitution 3.0:  Freedom and Technological Change," edited by Jeffrey Rosen and Benjamin Wittes.  The book addresses timely topics including government surveillance and electronic monitoring, warrants, the future of the US constitution, and the role of social media companies.

Much of the NPR article revolves around a case where law enforcement placed a global positioning system tracking device on the vehicle of a cocaine dealer without a warrant.  That case leads to larger questions about the rights of citizens to privacy versus the government obligation to provide a safe environment.

This is tricky ground.  We all want to live in a world where we can enjoy life without being assaulted by criminals or murdered by terrorists.  But at the same time, we have a basic human need for privacy.  Some may argue that if you're not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to hide.  I always respond with the argument that when you're going to the bathroom you're not doing anything wrong, but you still shut the door.  Privacy is a normal need for humans.

Governments and many citizens justify the widespread camera surveillance systems in use in London and other cities as tools in the fight against terrorism.  But really, these systems do not prevent crimes or attacks.  They only gather data for use after a crime has occurred.  And in gathering that data, they collect on everyone that passes by, both the innocent and the guilty.  This opens the door to the reasonable counter argument that when you're in public, there is no expectation of privacy.  But how far can this be stretched?

The NPR story also brings up the point that governments and individuals are not the only players here.  Companies like Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter--I call them third party information holders--control a massive amount of data about you and your movements and habits.  Rosen calls them 'gatekeepers' because they, not the courts, are often the ones who make decisions about privacy and free speech.  Rosen writes, "After all, Facebook is a private actor, the Constitution and the Fourth Amendment only prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures committed by government actors."

When you add in the information gathering potential of your cell phone provide, Internet provider, and even your car to the social networks, it's possible to see how your life can be under constant electronic surveillance.

The formation of new laws has lagged behind medical breakthroughs, and so too we are facing the same problem with our data.  For instance, let's say your drive your car to the metro station and park, take the metro down town, then walk and do some window shopping, stop at a coffee house that has Wi-Fi and check your email and social media on your cell phone or laptop computer, and maybe buy some music MP3 files or download an eBook that looks interesting.  For you, this may be a pleasant Saturday afternoon.  But in these simple, non-criminal actions, you generate an astounding amount of data for use by local, state and federal agencies, as well as third party information holders and private companies. 

Technology is moving so fast it's difficult for us to keep up.  Can a US Supreme Court justice who has never used a GPS system in their car or posted a note on Twitter truly understand the impact of these tools on our lives? Can you trust your own government to make the best choices when confronted with vicious terrorists and vague, outdated laws? And where do third parties fit in, and can we count on a company whose main and understandable goal is profit to make the right ethical choices concerning our data?

These are difficult questions, and I don't have easy answers, but I'm glad people are thinking about these issues.  I support privacy, but I loathe crime and terrorism.  Push and pull.

(Here's a link to the article at NPR.  For those that want to investigate further, you may want to check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has been looking at these problems since 1990.  The pic is from:whatsonningbo and is from a story about a Chinese plan to install 500,000 cameras in the city of Chongqing.)


  1. "Governments and many citizens justify the widespread camera surveillance systems in use in London and other cities as tools in the fight against terrorism. But really, these systems do not prevent crimes or attacks. They only gather data for use after a crime has occurred."

    Can't an argument be made that this in itself may help prevent future attacks. Surveillance video such as this has helped capture quite a few terrorist after the act, potentially preventing them from ever committing another future deed.

  2. Seth makes a good point that surveillance systems help capture terrorists after an attack and thus prevent a future attack. I agree this prevents an attack by that specific terrorist.

    Unfortunately, there seems to be a very large supply of terrorists, and someone who is willing to wear a bomb vest to commit suicide/homicide will not let a camera stop them. In a similar way, everyone knows banks have cameras, yet ordinary criminals still walk into a bank with a gun and rob it.

    My concern is the innocent are surveilled along with the guilty. For instance, airport security in the USA has inconvenienced (and sometimes violated) thousands of innocent travellers, but how many terrorists have been captured as a result of these measures? Where is the reasonable balance between safety and privacy?

    I don't have the answer, but I do think it's important that as a society we discuss it.

    Thanks for commenting, Seth!