How terrorists attacked your privacy rights, too

As we consider privacy issues in the world following the terrorist attacks of September 11, it's important not to go overboard by enacting significant restrictions on personal freedom, says AnchorDesk's David Coursey.

COMMENTARY--Just before 9am ET on Tuesday, the debate over privacy took a dramatic turn. While it once pitted computer wonks and civil libertarians against law enforcement and the intelligence community, today it becomes, more than ever, a clear and present issue of personal and national security.

Citizens will never know how many terrorist incidents have been prevented by intelligence work. But we are now all dramatically--and, for some, personally--aware of one that wasn't.

In 1949, US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote that Constitutional logic must be tempered with practical wisdom in to avoid converting the Bill of Rights into a "suicide pact."

At the same time, these freedoms are key in defining who we are as a nation and a people and to how citizens relate to their government. The question to be asked in coming days and weeks is a complex one: How do we balance personal privacy against the need for protection against our enemies?

The answers won't come easily. Freedom and security are in the balance as we examine our response to the horrific scenes in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania.

AnchorDesk readers, because of their understanding of technology, can play an important role in setting future policy and educating their friends and families on the issues involved.

For a number of years I've said that my personal privacy, so long as the information isn't used against me, is unimportant compared to the battle against world terror. Want to run my e-mail or telephone calls through some automated system that looks for key words and phrases? Go to it.

Sure, there will be abuses, though far fewer than the paranoid fringe would have you believe. Just the vast amount of data to be collected and processed makes it very difficult to target individuals without a very good reason and considerable effort--and, generally, a judge's approval.

This position has made me unpopular with the libertarians, privacy champions, and many readers. I will not, however, use this week's events to say I'm right and they're wrong. But I hope people who criticize the National Security Agency's Echelon, the FBI's Carnivore, and other electronic eavesdropping tools will appreciate the true nature of the threat against our way of life.

Today those systems are under attack, but not from the usual side. On Monday, the critics were some computer people and civil liberties groups who see them as abusive; today, the concerns come from those who say they didn't go far enough in protecting us.

I have a much greater fear of my government's enemies than of my government itself. And if I don't like that government, the ballot box has proven to be an effective way to change it.

As we consider privacy issues in the world following September 11, it's important not to go overboard. It would be very easy for a reactionary Congress to respond to public outrage by enacting significant restrictions on personal freedom. I hope that won't happen.

At the same time, I hope those who have traditionally opposed law enforcement in its efforts to protect us will have a better understanding of the cost of intelligence failures. The value of privacy exists only in a society that's safe enough to enjoy it.


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