On privacy: Party like it's 1984
A lot of the books with the literary canon that we read for school can seem a little dated at times. Make no mistake; the passage of 156 years has not sullied the deft articulation of the human experience contained within Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. But it can seem, at times, that the significance of such fine works does not extend much further than the classrooms in which they are discussed. Thankfully, however, the actions of several national and local governments around the world have reminded me why we read certain books. The books that come to mind are dystopian titles like Brave New World, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.
Reader, have no fear. This will not be the week that I launch into my anti-iPad screed about the prevalence of electronic screens and the dangers of becoming a bookless society like that of Fahrenheit 451. My concern is with privacy, with the possibility of living lives under constant surveillance like the inhabitants of 1984’s Oceania. For the past few weeks, recent legal developments have worked to undermine the personal rights of human beings at the behest of their governments, all in the name of “security.” This privacy/security dichotomy is nothing new (ask J. Edgar Hoover), but advances in telecommunications technology have made further erosion of privacy possible. It brings to mind the old saying: “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”
It is now commonplace for local law enforcement agencies to monitor phone calls, texts or the location of individuals using the internal GPS units of cell phones. It goes without saying that there are many situations in which this practice is clearly helpful, in terms of tracking down criminal suspects or helping to locate people who have been abducted. Anyone who has seen an episode of The Wire knows that such surveillance can be an effective tool for a criminal investigation. However, as it stands right now, there is no clear boundary between what constitutes acceptable use of such surveillance on the part of law enforcement, and no regulatory body to limit their usage.
Law enforcement agencies perform this surveillance with the assistance of telecommunications companies, but these companies have to remain complicit for fear of running afoul of the law (they also get to charge a fee). And while a prior-obtained judicial order or warrant is often necessary for any evidence to be admissible in court, there is nothing to prevent police from still using the technology, creating a significant problem with no clear solution. The body of civil rights law regarding unlawful surveillance is still very much in its infancy. Most significantly, because phone surveillance is a key component of US counterterrorism efforts, the federal government cannot necessarily be trusted to protect individual rights in this situation. But let’s not limit the blame to the usual two underachieving thirds: the executive and the legislative branches.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that officials are allowed to strip-search individuals arrested for any offense, even if there is no documented reason for the search. Ideally, these statutes would only be used against suspects who represent a serious danger to society, but there is plenty of space for abuses to occur. We need to remember that while security is important, a strip-search is a tremendous humiliation to a person and violation of their personal rights. According to Justice Stephen Breyer, there have been legal examples where people have been subjected to such searches after driving with a noisy muffler, failing to use a turn signal, or riding a bicycle without a bell. In those three instances, someone was committing an extremely minor offense, and the status of their personal rights were essentially at the discretion of a member of the authorities, the people who are supposed to protect us.
It seems that, as a society, we have crossed some kind of line regarding the protection of personal rights and privacy. In the almost 11 years since the September 11 attacks, we have all been forced to make certain accommodations in the name of security. Some, like having to remove your shoes at an airport security checkpoint, are just minor inconveniences. We now take long security lines at sporting events as a given.
But there are now significant threats to the individual rights of persons in our country. All of the injustices that I have mentioned can happen to citizens. Far worse can happen to aliens or recent immigrants. There has been a total subordination of personal rights to the cause of security.
All this security has the effect of making me feel quite unsafe.