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The Privacy vs. Security Conundrum

Author: Greg Bruno
February 27, 2008

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The delicate balancing act of maintaining national security while preserving civil liberties seems to get more complicated with each new generation of information technology. The House-Senate stalemate over extending a warrantless wiretapping law marks the latest case in point. President Bush says his ability to prevent terrorist attacks has been jeopardized by the infighting. House Democrats deny the charge, and Democratic Senators accuse the president of resorting to scare tactics (WashPost) to push an agenda. Similar concerns are now manifesting online. A “cyber initiative” (WashPost) unveiled by the president in January aims to expand the intelligence community’s role in monitoring U.S. information networks. Bush has said little publicly about the program, but some envision a repeat of the wiretapping imbroglio. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has called for the program to be put on hold (PDF) until Congress can adequately review it.

Politics aside, security experts agree on the need for flexibility in protecting the U.S. homeland. Threats from conventional terrorist attacks and, as this new Backgrounder explains, cyberspace, are of increasing concern to military and intelligence officials. Yet the row over monitoring communications in the name of national defense illustrates a growing divide between supporters of increased surveillance and protectors of civil liberties.

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told the AP the expiration of the wiretapping law could lead intelligence agents to “miss the very information we need to prevent some horrendous act from taking place in the United States.” Ed Giorgio, a security consultant for McConnell’s agency, told the New Yorker in January that policing the Internet “would mean giving government the authority to examine the content of any e-mail, file transfer, or web search.” Civil liberties advocates bristle at the thought. The American Civil Liberties Union likens Washington’s domestic surveillance tactics to the totalitarian society envisioned by George Orwell in his book, 1984.

Such analogies have not held up well in court challenges to stepped-up U.S. surveillance moves. On February 19, 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge (Detroit Free Press) to the spying program brought by a group of journalists and Muslim advocates in Detroit. Nor have U.S. citizens exhibited great alarm at increased government surveillance efforts. Polls in recent years have shown that Americans consider it more important for the government to investigate terrorism (PDF) than to protect privacy. A January 2008 survey of one-thousand adults by Rasmussen Reports affirms this, though it is unclear how recent privacy-versus-security spats might alter those opinions. (Free speech advocates have criticized a recent federal judge’s order forcing the shutdown (Newsweek) of the whistle-blower web site Wikileaks.org, and the U.S. army’s removal of unclassified documents (WashPost) from the public domain.)

What is clear is how politicized the debate has become. The dispute over the government’s wiretapping program hinges on whether to give telecom firms immunity from prosecution. Congressional Republicans have generally sought to extend immunity and legalize the wiretapping program, while Democrats favor holding telecoms accountable. A recent attempt at a bipartisan compromise was boycotted by GOP lawmakers (Wired); a trio of party leaders outlined the importance of the immunity issue in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on February 26. Yet some observers say the bickering is beside the point. As the Economist notes, “the statute’s demise has done little practical harm.” Current investigations can continue, the magazine says, and surveillance that needs a judge’s signature can be obtained retroactively.

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