Sunday, 31 July 2005

Liberty, Security, Privacy, & Social Responsibility

Some beliefs have their roots in a deeply seated conviction, while others are based on practical considerations. I generally think of the former as trumping the latter, but really it depends on what is at stake, and how compelling the conviction or practical consideration is.

Sometimes something which began from a practical consideration becomes such an article of faith that we start believing that it is tied to a deeply held moral conviction even though it is not.

Looking at my title, I believe that Security and Privacy are practical values, while Liberty and Social Responsibility are values of conviction. I'm a member of the ACLU, and am happy to pay my annual dues, but sometimes I do believe that they tend to make articles of faith out of principles which stem more from practical considerations than deeply held convictions. Putting a lid on government snooping is one such instance.

Now in the current political climate, I am happy that the ACLU is acting as a watchdog on our government, because that function is sorely needed. There are sufficient troubling stories about surveillance which is based on ideological position rather than on keeping tabs on true menaces, that I look to the ACLU as a protector in that regard.

But from a utopian perspective, government having information about its private citizens is not an a priori evil. Open information, in fact, should be seen as a good thing. We can make the best decisions and be accountable to the highest standards when transparency is high - in government, in corporations, and in our personal lives. I've not yet read David Brin's The Transparent Society, but am favorably disposed to the ideas which I understand he espouses there. Unfortunately we live in a world where power is inequitably distributed and unscrupulous institutions are all too willing to use information about others for nefarious ends.

So in the short term, practical considerations sometimes must trump ideals, if that lessens the ability of the powerful to exploit the vulnerable.

The national identity card, which many of my friends would decry as an outrageous infringement on their freedom, is not dangerous because it is at odds with some inherent truth, but because of the practical possibility that it could be misused by a government more intent on silencing its enemies than protecting its citizens. The time for a national identity card is not now, but only after the ability to misuse it has been limited convincingly by laws with teeth, and the expectation that they be followed scrupulously.

DNA fingerprinting has proved to be an invaluable tool in criminology, superceding ordinary fingerprinting as the gold standard for identification. In an ideal society, our government would be so fully trustworthy, that it would be plainly obvious to anyone that every infant or immigrant would have their DNA recorded in a national database. True criminals would be hampered, missing persons could be more easily found, medical matches would be quickly found - though always with the right to refuse participation without identification to third parties. Strict laws and societal expectations would circumscribe the use of the database for just these sorts of cases, and never for commercial exploitation, oppression, or blackmail.

Clearly we're not there yet. Perhaps we never will be. But my point is that privacy in and of itself is not such an inherent value that it should be protected above all else. I recently discovered Jack Grant's Random Fate where he writes
The struggle is between liberty and safety, as it always has been, but now the struggle is waged in a society and culture that has valued the freedom of the individual at the expense of a larger social responsibility that was so ingrained in the culture of the founders that it literally went without saying in most of their writings.
in making his own case that the ACLU overreached in challenging the constitutionality of random New York subway searches. Though I found myself in this particular case more inclined to agree with some of his commenters who suggested that the searches were far likelier to result in abuse than to quell an actual attack, that is a practical judgment, and Jack's point stands insofar as it will not ALWAYS be correct to limit every intrusion. There is a balance to be struck, and we err in thinking that privacy is sacrosanct in every instance.


Anonymous said...

I must respectfully disagree. If you take away my privacy, you have taken away my freedom. If the government knows everything about me and can inspect my person whenever they feel the need, then the only difference between me and a prisoner is the size of my prison.

Walker said...

You wrote: "and can inspect my person whenever they feel the need"

My position is that government cannot be allowed such knowledge unless there is a solidly established law and upheld principle that they CANNOT do exactly what you say. Is there a danger that even if my conditions were met, things might later change creating the danger for abuse? Certainly - but there are always dangers for abuse around every corner. If we take immovable positions that something can never be allowed because it might someday result in an abuse, then we back ourselves into absurd corners. We've got a system with sufficiently malleable laws that we can tweak and adjust as necessary. I recently ran into this James Madison quote which cuts to the heart of the matter:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In forming a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Thanks again to Jack Grant.