Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Liberty, Privacy and Security

Relying on the government to protect your privacy is like asking a peeping tom to install your window blinds.” – John Perry Barlow

I find it amazing that a country with over 200 years of “liberty and justice for all”, can't seem to figure out that liberty and privacy and security are all tightly bound into a single knot. The RAND corporation figured it out and the European Convention on Human Rights spelled it out in 1953. But here in the states we seem to be muddling along under the impression that if everyone knows everything about everyone then no one will be at risk.

The number and breadth of the changes to US policy, laws and rules around personal privacy is staggering. While there is no explicit mention of privacy in the US Constitution or its Amendments, the Supreme Court has held on several occasions that privacy is one of the values served and protected by various amendments. Our government seems to be destroying those protections, asserting that if we give up a little more privacy at the airport, if we suffer the indignity of undressing for the inspectors, if we just allow the government access to our banking data, if we just require that all drivers licenses function as identity cards, if we only allow........ If we, the people, do not assert that the Constitution does apply to privacy and that we have the right to be private individuals then the cherished Constitution and it's Amendments will not be worth the parchment they are written on.

And so we find ourselves in interesting times. It may take our European brethren, survivors of more terrorist attacks than the US, to point out the folly of our ways. Perhaps by not allowing the US government access to the SWIFT banking records they will send us the message that a reduction in privacy does not translate to an increase in security. To paraphrase Ben Franklin: If we restrict privacy to attain security we will lose them both.

Perhaps it is time for the US to start considering who owns the private data of its citizens. Here we find a fundamental difference from our European counterparts. There a person owns their private data, they specify who can have it and for what purpose. In the states whomever holds the data owns it and can do with it as they wish – subject to certain legal restrictions aimed at curbing identity theft and preserving specific legally recognized confidential situations (e.g. lawyer/client, and physician/patient). How different it would be if each of us were in control of our data. Perhaps it would be safer too.

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