Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Security vs Privacy: It's not what you think it is, part 2"

Originally published 06/06/2011 on lubbockonline.com

Last week I told you about Daniel J. Solov, the author of "Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security" and his article, "Why 'security' keeps winning out over privacy," on salon.com about the bogus reasons security trumps privacy every time the two come into conflict. We looked at the first two mistaken arguments in his article last Wednesday.Today we'll look at the last three. Eventually we may look at the wider list of faulty security vs privacy arguments, but these will do for now.

The next argument we will look at is the "Pendulum argument." This is the idea that in times of heightened risk we should blindly allow privacy concerns to fall to the wayside because when things calm down the pendulum will swing the other way and privacy will be reinstated. The problem is, when risk is low, there isn't a great deal of demand to violate privacy for security, so the need to protect privacy isn't as great. In times of heightened risk the desire to be safe makes us less likely to question measures that supposedly increase our protection. So we get measures that sound good, but really do little. Solove mentions the Japanese interment in World War II and the "Red Scare" of the Mcarthy Era." Our problem is a little more hidden, though no more subtle. The ongoing monitoring of as close to every landline phone in the U.S. as possible (that's pretty close). In 2003 the Census Bureau gave the Department of Homeland Security the cities and zip codes of Arab Americans - supposedly to help decide what airports needed signs in Arabic. The implementation of full body scanners and gropedowns at airports to prevent bombings. These are just a few examples of actions taken to improve security that did little for security but cut deeply into privacy and liberty.

The War Powers argument looks good at first glance. It's the job of the President to lead our nations in time of war, and nothing should hamper his ability to do that. The NSA wiretapping is justified because, even though it violates the Foriegn Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the the Presidents ability to lead our country in times of war is more important than any law. The implication is that there is nothing the president can't do if we are at war. He can put citizens in concentration camps, ignore Consititutionally garaunteed rights, and have people pulled from their houses and shot without explanation if he is doing it under "War Powers."

Last, we have the Luddite Argument. The Luddite argument says that if you're not willing to embrace technology you're holding security back through fear and ignorance. But the truth is, often these technologies haven't been vetted properly, and may not be ready for prime time. The anti-bomb "puffers" put into service to protect us from bombs are a prime example. But Mr. Solove's example of biometrics is a very good and timely example:


To see the problems with the Luddite argument, let’s look at biometrics. Biometric identification allows people to be identified by their physical characteristics -- fingerprint, eye pattern, voice and so on. The technology has a lot of promise, but there is a problem, one I call the "Titanic phenomenon." The Titanic was thought to be unsinkable, so it lacked adequate lifeboats. If biometric data ever got lost, we could be in a Titanic-like situation -- people’s permanent physical characteristics could be in the hands of criminals, and people could never reclaim their identities. Biometric identification depends on information about people’s characteristics being stored in a database. And we hear case after case of businesses and government agencies that suffer data security breaches.


He goes on to point out that if someone steals your SS# you can replace it. Making sure you understand all the implications of using biometrics before ditching our current system is wisdom, not ludditism.

There are a number of arguments used to 'prove' security is more important that privacy, and that privacy is a danger to security. The truth is that there are few situations where privacy and liberty are incompatible with security. But to some government officials and law enforcement the idea of privacy is synonomous with chaos. We can't let them have the last word on security and privacy policies.