A Better Way to Balance Privacy and Security

We need someone to oversee those who can invade our privacy.

By + More

Whatever one may think about Edward Snowden, his revelations concerning the way the National Security Agency has been scanning and filing the electronic communications of ordinary Americans dominates the political debate.

No one likes to be spied on. On the other hand many people, especially those working in the nation's capital, are no doubt grateful that none of the buildings in which they work have been blown up by terrorists since 9/11.

The tension between security and privacy is all too evident these days. Benjamin Franklin's maxim that "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety" is as true today as it was when he first wrote those famous words. The question before us now is whether or not that is really the tradeoff.

More than a few of America's young people think it is. And they, according to a recent article in The College Fix, a website that tracks news and events on the nation's campuses, are none too happy about it.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

Hassan Sheikh, a 26-year-old libertarian attending Omaha's Creighton University told the website he would "definitely be willing to sacrifice the government's assurances of security for the reinstitution of constitutional rights, even if that results in his death."

"All across the world," Sheikh said, "our armed forces put their lives in harm's way to protect our way of life … Why is it so ludicrous that ordinary citizens might give up the protections of domestic surveillance so that when our veterans return, they come back to the same America?"

Adam Wolter, whom the Fix calls "a self-described libertarian Republican studying software engineering at Iowa State University" said he would "certainly consider my death in a terrorist attack justifiable for the preservation of freedom." Wolter said he though "big data" was far more dangerous to "our safety and freedom" than terrorist attacks.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Americans Be Worried About the National Security Agency's Data Collection?]

In total, The College Fix reported that it has interviewed 13 students via email and telephone for the survey.  An admittedly small number and hardly a representative sample, most of these young apostles for liberty agreed with the formulation that, "in the event that the U.S. surveillance state ended its unconstitutional activities the students would count their death in a subsequent terrorist attack as a justifiable price for freedom and liberty."

It's all well and good for them to feel that way – and many Americans might agree with them in part – but the cavalier attitude they take toward the potential loss of life that might occur were the NSA to shut down its surveillance operations is almost as disturbing as the program itself.

The information age requires the creation of a meaningful balance between privacy and security. The government can, indeed, listen to, copy, file, regenerate, archive, transcribe and publicize just about any so-called secret communication it wants. There are legitimate reasons to compile information on who might be calling whom and with what frequency. Yet it is also important to remember that just because the government can do something – which is often enough an excuse for them to do it – does not mean the government should do something.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

The smart play may be for those concerned about privacy to call for the creation of a permanent presidential advisory panel on privacy akin to the permanent body that advises the chief executive on foreign intelligence activities. A blue-ribbon panel, with members appointed by the president and confirmed by the United States Senate, to oversee the activities of those who are empowered by law or by mission statement to invade our privacy or monitor our electronic communications might be the necessary first step in establishing reasonable checks and balances on the government's ability to eavesdrop on the rest of us.

This would not require the NSA surveillance programs to be shut down without considering the impact of such a move – thus preventing the same kind of damage from occurring to communications intelligence gathering that happened to the Central Intelligence Agency after the infamous "Church Commission," when the frightening revelations about what the CIA had been doing led to the introduction of laws that still handicap its ability to function effectively. At the same time, such a permanent commission would establish institutional memory that would be useful in keeping things from, for lack of a better term, getting out of hand.

No one, not even America's college students, are wrong to ask pointed questions about what the NSA has being doing over the last decade in the war on terror. But to decide its actions have been uniformly bad and, therefore, to put an end to them without understanding completely the consequences of such a move would leave the United States uncomfortably vulnerable.

It's a lesson we've had to learn the hard way, as in the aftermath of World War I when Secretary of War Henry Stimson shut down U.S. code breaking and intelligence gathering efforts on the grounds that "Gentlemen do not read other people's mail." As a result, America was left largely blind to what was going on in the rest of the world for almost a decade – a blindness that only really ended after Dec. 7, 1941. We should not, even in the name of liberty, make that same mistake again.

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: The Onion on CNN's Miley Cyrus-VMA Obsession
  • Read Jamie Stiehm: Obama Should Stay Out of Syria's Civil War
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad