The 'Privacy vs. Security' Canard

One of the standard claims of those who would defend "well-intentioned" police-state practices such as the NSA's universal secret monitoring of telephone and e-mail data is that the enhancement of "security" provided by these programs warrants the sacrifice of "some privacy."  That argument is being worked to a frazzle of late, as the Obama administration and others seek to justify the ever-growing litany of revelations about the levels of surveillance to which the U.S. federal government is subjecting everyone.  This framing of the issue as "privacy vs. security" is a canard which loads the dice in tyranny's favor.

It's important to recognize that you can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.  We're going to have to make some choices as a society.

So says Barack Obama to the American people, defending the NSA's gathering of communications metadata.  But following this line of non-reasoning, how are Americans to make the relevant "choices"? -- pretending for a moment that they were given any "choice" in the matter of a top-secret bureaucratic invasion of their lives that they would never have learned about without an Edward Snowden.  Obama, using the typical vernacular of this issue, presents 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy as desirable but contradictory goals.  Does this mean that choosing 50 percent security entails giving up 50 percent privacy?  If you desired 100 percent security, would you have to relinquish 100 percent of your privacy?  (This appears to be the Obama administration's preferred option.)  And how does "inconvenience" figure into this scale of measurement? 

More generally, however, why are we reduced to discussing political philosophy like children arguing about school night curfews with their parents?

The word "privacy" has been at the center of the debate over the administration's disregard for the individual rights and dignity of its citizens -- not to mention the citizens of every other nation -- from day one.  And privacy is the best way to frame this debate -- from the point of view of defending authoritarianism.  Privacy is a vague, nebulous concept, difficult to define in a political context, and therefore seemingly negotiable.  By focusing on privacy, rather than liberty, the defenders of unlimited state power seek to turn this relatively cut-and-dried issue into a nuanced balancing act between legitimate but conflicting aspirations.  (Notice how frequently and religiously the NSA's apologists of the left and right turn to the Supreme Court's rulings regarding what constitutes "a reasonable expectation of privacy" -- as if, as I have previously noted, these people suddenly regard SCOTUS as beyond reproach.)

Perhaps, by way of clarifying the problem, we ought to try to follow the logic of the defenders of the NSA's universal communications surveillance (oops, I mean "data-collection") programs, and see where it leads. 

On Father's Day -- how appropriate -- the friends of paternalistic government were out in force, appearing throughout the American media to deliver a simple and monolithic message: Edward Snowden traitor, NSA patriot.  Let us examine the version of this message delivered by the coolest head among the defenders, and the one specifically sent out to allay the fears of conservatives, Vice President Dick Cheney. 

On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace showed Cheney a clip of Senator Rand Paul saying this:

This is what we objected to, and what our founding fathers partly fought the Revolution over, is that they did not want generalized warrants where you could go from house to house with soldiers looking for things -- or now, from computer to computer to phone to phone -- without specifying who you're targeting.

In response to this, Cheney said:

Two-thirds of the Congress today, Chris, wasn't here on 9/11, or for that period immediately after, when we got into this program.  And the reason we got into it was because we'd been attacked... nineteen guys armed with box cutters and airline tickets.  The worry is... that sooner or later there's going to be another attack, and they'll have deadlier weapons than ever before....  When you consider the possibility of somebody smuggling something like a nuclear device into the United States, it becomes very important to gather intelligence on your enemies, and stop that attack before it ever gets launched.

Cheney begins with a non sequitur that somehow becomes his main argument -- namely, that two-thirds of today's Congress wasn't in Washington on 9/11.  So what?  Weren't those newer members, such as Cheney's implied target, Rand Paul, nevertheless alive, adult, and every bit as concerned about the events of 9/11 as the men and women who were in Washington at that time?  Cheney is attempting to dismiss Paul's concerns on the grounds that Paul does not really understand the issues at stake, but his argument relies on the laziest of logical fallacies, the appeal to authority -- specifically, in this case, his own authority.  (Note that he does not answer Paul's specific concern about "generalized warrants"; in fact, his answer implies that such concerns are simply no longer valid.)  Cheney's remark reveals the precise attitude of the Washington establishment that drives constitutional conservatives crazy -- its unblinking paternalistic condescension.  If you weren't a member of the Washington establishment on 9/11, Cheney suggests, then you just don't understand the real issues, so your argument does not warrant serious rebuttal.  "You'll understand all of this when you grow up," Cheney in effect tells the fifty-year-old U.S. senator and twenty-year practicing physician.

Aside from this dismissive attitude (which, by the way, might go some way to explaining why two-thirds of the Congress has changed over the past several years), Cheney's case for the U.S. government's moral authority to marshal the data from every technological communication on the planet -- to nationalize the private data of communications companies, as Mark Levin puts it -- is just a more concrete version of Obama's weird math about privacy, security, and inconvenience.  Phrases such as "another attack," "nuclear device," and so on are not rational arguments for specific government action, but rather frightening images intended to obviate any need for rational argument.

The biggest logical problem enters here.  The defenders of this unbridled surveillance bank everything on their claim that bad things might happen if the government is not granted this unprecedented and unlimited authority.  What they are hoping you won't notice -- or perhaps fail to notice themselves -- is that bad things will necessarily happen if the government is granted such authority.

Cheney, for example, says that the possibility of another deadly terrorist attack makes it "important to gather intelligence on your enemies."  That is obviously true, but again beside the point, as we are not talking about gathering intelligence on one's enemies, but rather the monitoring of every innocent man, woman, or child who uses a telephone or a computer to contact someone.  Consider, by analogy, a man who believes that his wife may be having an affair, and who therefore hires a private investigator -- not to follow his wife around and see what she is doing, but to catalogue the comings and goings of every man in town, in case one of them should happen to be secretly meeting his wife.

Let's get right to the nub of it.  If you want to increase security by reducing the risk of Islamic terrorism in the most effective way possible, here's what you can do: mobilize the militaries of America and her Western allies, and turn every Islamic country into a radioactive parking lot tomorrow.  It will also be necessary to deny Muslims entry to all Western nations effective immediately, and to round up and expel those currently residing in the West.

"That's insane," you exclaim, "for it would hurt millions of innocent people who have neither harmed anyone nor ever planned to harm anyone!"

You are exactly right.  And that is precisely the point I am making with regard to the commandeering of all electronic communications, and the denial of "privacy" through establishing blanket authority to examine everyone's contacts, determine anyone's whereabouts, and analyze everyone's activities, without specific grounds for suspicion of criminal behavior.  The modern concept of "privacy," used as a bargaining chip in the security marketplace, is a trivialization of a more serious notion of the private which was so central to the development of modern liberty.  The real issue here is not whether we can afford to sacrifice "a little privacy," but whether we can afford to sacrifice our nature as private beings -- i.e., as men and women who fundamentally exist independent of any government. 

That is, the core of paternalistic government is the assumption that men are primarily the custody of the state, as children are of their parents.  But the philosophy of modern liberty begins from the opposite assumption -- namely, that we are primarily separate entities -- private men -- whose attachment to the state is a secondary reality and essentially voluntary in nature.  The supposition that anything done in the name of "security" is justified may be appropriate to the context of our emotional support for a man who kills a home invader "to protect his children," since the children's security really is entirely his responsibility.  This supposition is not appropriate to the voluntary relationship of rational adults that constitutes civil society and leads to the institution of limited government.

Oh, but these times are different, some may object.  After all, Islamic terrorists are attempting to destroy Western civilization, and if they are not stopped by any possible means, they might succeed. 

First of all, if the West is prepared to resort to "any possible means," then the jihadists out to destroy us have already succeeded.  How many times have we heard Western leaders insist that if we give up our core principles of freedom and individual rights, the terrorists win?  And yet one of the most prominent purveyors of that argument is now answering concerns that the U.S. federal government has exceeded its legitimate powers by saying, in effect, "You weren't in Washington on 9/11, so you just wouldn't understand why these hitherto unacceptable powers are necessary."  Okay, so the terrorists have indeed won; let's at least be honest about it.

Furthermore, let us reconsider the claim at the center of all the arguments for the government's (self-granted) authority secretly to collect data on everyone's daily activities and associations: "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience."  That is, the government must be allowed to grow in scope and authority over the individual in order to ensure collective safety.

This argument for ever-expanding power in the name of national security is similar to the argument for ever-expanding power in the name of social security.  Society is perceived to have a problem; the only plausible solution, it is maintained, is more government power and less individual liberty.  The social security version of this argument has worked out rather poorly; increased government authority to provide "security" has resulted in the bankrupting of most of a civilization, the inculcation of a shameless culture of mass dependency, and the infinite expansion of a bureaucratic regulatory state that neatly combines the philosophy of Lenin with the psychology of Kafka.

However, one might object, national security is a more legitimate function of government.  So it is, but does the legitimacy of the function give blanket legitimacy to any and all methods pursued in the name of that function?  That is, does the end justify the means?  Does the importance of security justify the gradual establishment of a "soft police state," if you will?

The error of assuming such expanded, open-ended powers in the name of security is that this entails attempting to mitigate a risk to some by means that guarantee a more fundamental danger to all -- that is, it means buying protection against potential physical harm to some men at the price of actual spiritual harm to mankind.  Such a price seems reasonable only in a degenerate age in which pleasure has supplanted virtue as a defining good, and hence the safety of the body is valued above the freedom of the soul.

And the threat of expanded state power carries a danger that is not static, but devolutionary.  For doesn't establishing a principle of sacrificing individual liberty to collective physical security promote, or even require, a societal deterioration of respect for the individual, and a general culture of technology-grounded paternalism (i.e., totalitarianism) in the "governing class"?  Does the recorded history of the trajectory of such governance suggest that its practitioners are likely to violate liberty only as far as is "necessary," to revoke assumed powers once those powers appear to have served their benign purpose, or to abstain from taking illegitimate advantage of these powers, and the public submissiveness they engender, to advance agendas and interests beyond the goals initially enumerated as justifications for those powers?

How can the defenders of such an anti-individual, dignity-defying aggrandizement of the state as is currently being foisted upon the world in the name of "security" possibly answer the old battle cries of freedom that issued from a world before collectivist authoritarianism reasserted its hold on civilization?  What happened to "Give me liberty or give me death"?  It has now been replaced, in a Faustian bargain, with "I'll give you my liberty if you promise not to let me die."

Just a few private thoughts that I don't mind sharing with the NSA.

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