The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: privacy vs. security

Getting Our Priorities Straight

Almost everyone agrees that safety and privacy are two things that people have the fundamental right to enjoy.  Rarely do we hear an argument deliberately stating that either of these concepts should be intentionally disregarded.  In a perfect world, everyone could feel protected from physical harm as well as from privacy invasion.  Unfortunately, however, we do not live in a perfect world.  We live in a society where priorities must be evaluated and sacrifices must be made in order to promote the greater good.

Today, we face a growing prevalence of terrorism and violent crime that poses a threat to national security.  It is important that our government is given freedom to use electronic surveillance because it would allow it to collect information that could prevent these horrible incidents from ever taking place.  If federal agencies such as the NSA or the FBI could monitor people's online behavior, they could identify red flags and potentially intervene before tragedy strikes.  Even if the chances are slim, it's still worth a try.

Some believe that the government would be overstepping its bounds with surveillance like this, saying it has no right to collect personal data.  However, if surveillance has a chance to save lives, one could argue that it is acceptable to use it at the expense of some degree of personal privacy.  As long as you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to be afraid of.  The primary purpose of any government is to protect its citizens.  It has no interest in snooping around an ordinary person's data, and would not go out of its way to bother anyone who doesn't pose a threat.  Overall, it's important that we have a little bit more faith in the intentions of our government.  We are currently in the midst of an informational arms race.  The enemy is using every resource at their disposal to try to come out on top - shouldn't we do the same?


The Essence of the Security vs. Privacy Debate

When we talk about the battle between security and privacy, most of the discussion from both sides has to do with one of two topics: the effectiveness of electronic mass surveillance in deterring and stopping crime, or the effect that surveillance has on individual freedoms e.g. freedom of speech/expression. These are the most important questions in the debate, since we all agree that both individual freedom and safety are important, but the debate surrounds the way we prioritize those values and the effects that we perceive surveillance having on them. As a debater on either side of the topic, it is often tempting (and quite easy) to exaggerate the importance of either privacy or security, for example by claiming that by letting the government monitor our phone calls, we are condemning ourselves to an Orwellian future. Obviously, it is possible to live in a free and healthy democratic society where the government has access to its citizens phone calls. So instead of making that extreme claim, it might be more appropriate to simply note that we need to be deliberate and thoughtful about what freedoms we give up, and a similar approach applies to the safety side of the debate.

In addition to these value-driven issues, there is an important practical side to the debate that goes along with the above idea to be judicious in how we relinquish our freedoms, even when the end result is justified. It is important to keep in mind that any powers we grant to the government now are effectively permanent; they set a precedent for future regimes to do the same. So if we are going to give up a freedom in today's society, we should also be willing to give that up in a hypothetical society where our ruler is the kind of tyrant we fear the most. Obviously, our constitution is designed specifically to prevent such a government from coming to power, but recognizing the longstanding effects of our choices today is vital since we can't afford to get the answers to these questions wrong.

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