Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Death draweth nigh for U.S. citizen privacy

{ Podcast this essay } In a pithy but chilling summary of the current US government's free reign to monitor whomever it wants for any reason whatsoever (all under the convenient pseudo-excuse of fighting terrorism), Jennifer Granick outlines "two of the most important cases in decades dealing with the rule of law and personal privacy"[1]. Granick identifies two worries to civic freedoms.

First, if a government branch uses illegal activities (in this case electronic monitoring) on its citizens in the name of national security, can it claim immunity from public oversight when later caught so doing? Second, can a government collect data about its citizen's communications, such as phone calls and emails, and then subsequently data mine this data w/o judicial supervision?

Any person who participated in The Cold War sneak-and-peek era[2] will appreciate that how these questions get answered in judicial review will set a long precedent for the role of government action towards its citizens in a completely digitalized society.

The importance of such a long term precedent is the reason why the derived "right" to privacy is far more important than the simple 1980's huff about who must get notified during an abortion procedure. First, that squabble was simply a warm-up game about social disagreements concerning sexual mores and how various sub-cultures (mostly religious) within a greater secular nation would get to set values for their own regional influence. Yet a part of that squabble also overlapped a more important civic issue; the debate about states rights versus federal rights, much like how The Scopes Monkey Trial of the 20s and the more recent so-called intelligent design debates were about whether one could mandate the teaching of favored religious values (or not) from region to region.[3]

So what will be the precedent for the role of government in a completely digitalized society? In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the Supreme Court of the United States found that the U.S. constitution contained "penumbras" that implicitly granted U.S. citizens a right to privacy against government intrusion. Privacy has also been linked to due process considerations, and in some ways this is the issue at hand for today: will there remain a process in place to keep the U.S. government from overextending its influence into citizens affairs, and thus maintaining maximal freedom of movement for its citizens?

At least the investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Justice is still clear concerning what is at risk to American freedoms. As Director Robert Mueller recently stated:
"The FBI is acutely aware that we cannot protect against threats at the expense of civil liberties. We are judged not just by our ability to defend the nation from terrorist attacks but also our commitment to defend the rights and freedoms we all enjoy."[4]
My ultimate worry is that unenlightened, power grabbing politicians and means-justify-the-end bureaucrats within other governmental organizations (such as the CIA and NSA) will certainly not be interested maintaining such a responsible attitude. Therefore, strong judicial oversight of surveillance activities conducted under the ever-nebulous guise of fighting terrorism is absolutely essential.


[1] Jennifer Granick "Nation's Soul Is at Stake in NSA Surveillance Case" Wired Accessed (8/15/2007)

[2] "Cold War Experience - Espionage" CNN Interactive (Accessed 8/15/2007)

[3] Doug Linde "Evolution/Creationism" Exploring Constitutional Law Website (Accessed 8/15/2007)

[4] Fritz Kramer "Sincerely Yours: The FBI's National Security Letters" PBS Frontline Website Accessed (8/15/2007)


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At 11:17 AM, Blogger Taylor Caraway said...

I'm not one for hokey quotes, but I've always liked this one...

"People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both." -- Benjamin Franklin


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