4. National security requires major sacrifices in privacy.
Obama invoked this myth this month when he said, “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.” The implication is that those upset about surveillance fail to recognize that we must trade some privacy for security.
But usually it’s not either-or. As Obama himself said in his 2009 inaugural address: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”
Protecting privacy doesn’t need to mean scuttling a security measure. Most people concerned about the privacy implications of government surveillance aren’t arguing for no surveillance and absolute privacy. They’d be fine giving up some privacy as long as appropriate controls, limitations, oversight and accountability mechanisms were in place.
This sentiment was evident in the public outcry over the Transportation Security Administration’s use of full-body X-ray scanners that displayed what looked like nude images of airline passengers. No one wanted to end airport security checks. They wanted checks that were less intrusive. Congress required the TSA to use less-revealing software, and the agency ended up switching to different machines.
5. Americans aren’t especially bothered by government intrusions into their privacy.
“The public is just fine with government snooping in the name of counterterrorism,” read one Washington Post headline this past week. Indeed, a Post and Pew Research Center poll found that a majority of Americans prioritized the investigation of possible terrorist threats over the protection of personal privacy and considered it “acceptable” for the NSA to use secret court orders to access phone records to investigate terrorism.
Yet the same poll showed that the public was more closely divided on whether “the U.S. government should be able to monitor everyone’s e-mail and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks.” And a Gallup poll found that only 37 percent of Americans approved of the NSA obtaining phone records and Internet communications as part of efforts to investigate terrorism, while 53 percent disapproved.
I would expect polls to show even more support for privacy if it weren’t falsely pitted — in public debates and in poll questions themselves — against stopping terrorist attacks. We don’t have to choose between preserving privacy and preventing terrorism. We do have to decide how much oversight and accountability there should be when the government conducts surveillance of its citizens.
Read more from Outlook:
Obama, the ‘big-data’ president
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