Traffic cameras, government data mining and hi-tech surveillance all bother me. I don’t even like paying tolls with EZ-Pass or using the SmartTrip card on the Metro because then the government knows where I’ve been.
But let’s be honest: does the government really care where I’ve been? And if I have nothing to hide, why I should care what the government knows about me? In other words, aren’t arguments against government surveillance really efforts to protect our own crimes from detection?
The issue of privacy has come to the fore after September 11 as our country struggles to balance legitimate concerns of national security and privacy.
In any discussion of privacy, the 4th Amendment must play a role. That amendment protects people against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” But, what is a search, and why should we mind them?
Even if I am doing nothing wrong, it’s pretty upsetting if the feds bust down my door and rifle through my stuff. It disturbs my peace and the order of the home. But what if they can know everything about me without inconveniencing me?
In the recent The New Atlantis, a journal about “Technology and Society,” Attorney Carter Snead gets to that issue:
In Kyllo v. United States (2001), the defendant argued that the police’s warrantless use of thermal imaging technology to gather information regarding the interior of his home (i.e., the presence and use of marijuana “grow lights”) constituted an unreasonable search in violation of his constitutional rights. The government responded by arguing that no search was undertaken (much less an unreasonable search), as the officers did not physically trespass into the house, but merely stood lawfully on the street and collected data about heat that was emanating from the exterior of the home.
The court ruled that that the feds were out of line in using the technology without a warrant. But why would our Constitution prohibit something that is only upsetting to criminals, and only insofar as they are criminals? Thermal imaging on my house would turn up nothing illegal, I think, and so it doesn’t really bother me.
But what if the government were reading every e-mail and instant message I sent? That would displease me. Mostly it would displease me because some of my associates are involved in horrible activities such as burning one another’s CDs, driving 68 miles per hour, and some even bought beer when they were 20. I wouldn’t want these associates getting caught.
How conservative is that, though? If I think speeding and underage drinking are fine, shouldn’t I try to get the laws changed? Or at least shouldn’t we make a public act of our civil disobedience rather than sneaking around the law?
Part of the reason this discussion is so difficult, is that it is so often carried out in terms of rights. Leftists will argue about a right to privacy, while libertarians will talk about property rights. Neither way of looking at the issue makes things very clear.
We do not have any “right” to break the law. It’s tough to argue we have a right to go undetected in our breaking the law. Similarly, how can we claim that what we send out over the ether and copper cables is our property?
So, where do we turn when new technologies provide new ways for the government to know everything about us? We may find some guidance in the good old conservative outlook on the world.
If laws were perfectly just (meaning our Congressmen were perfect), lawyers and judges flawless, and law enforcement infinitely wise and well-intentioned, only the unjust man would object to allowing the state to know everything about us.
Curbing the ability of law-enforcement is a tacit statement that we don’t necessarily trust the government with very sensitive information about us. Appeals to privacy are, at bottom, prudential guards against the corrupt nature of the men and women in our government.
A corrupt old-fashioned cop on the beat can do far less harm than the same guy could armed with today’s technology. On a federal–and more paranoid–level, every power we give to John Ashcroft to use against terrorists and cocaine dealers today will be used by a future Janet Reno against Christians and gun-owners.
But this raises a question about the liberals who argue against state surveillance. If you believe the government is fit for conducting a vast welfare system and engineering the economy, why don’t you trust them with information on potentially criminal activity–the most legitimate arena for government?
It’s not an easy topic, because it involves uncomfortable admissions (such as: some level of crime is healthy), but privacy is a topic that the terrorists and technology have made unavoidable.
Tim Carney is a reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire