Views on Surveillance May Depend on Degree of Responsibility

In the uproar over the U.S. surveillance program, at first it is not easy to classify the sides.  One-time lefty veep Al Gore is horrified by the program while the young right-winger Rand Paul fulminates about it as an “assault on the Constitution.” The seasoned Democrat Diane Feinstein calmly defends the program as lawful, authorized by three branches of government in different ways; the ACLU responds that this a pox on all the branches.  The editors of the New York Times are outraged by the governmental excesses (a “dragnet”) while the White House demurs.  The press and blogosphere are viral, though it is too soon to gauge the public’s net view (something that in any event can be opaque or fickle,e.g. this and this).  

I admit being torn about the correct policy in this situation, the balance between privacy and security, or even how to think about their relationship if there is not a trade-off.  But reading the papers and reports in the fury of this moment, one salient feature that seems to divide the viewpoints is the degree to which a person is in a position of responsibility for government administration.  It is a lot easier for those without such responsibility to criticize governmental actions.  If a terrorist slips through the cracks, blame will not be assigned to bloggers, journalists, policy wonks, citizens, former government officials or even disgruntled government officials who do not believe in government.  Blame will be assigned to, and the burden of guilt borne by, those in office who believe that government has some responsibility to protect the country.

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10 Responses

  1. Jimbino says:

    The Dutch Jews had plenty of security in 1939, but less privacy, since the Dutch gummint had records of name, date of birth, address and religion. After the Nazis seized the Dutch gummint records in 1940, the Dutch Jews found both security and privacy in the extermination camps.

    The greatest threat to your freedom is not terrorism, but your own Amerikan gummint run amok.

  2. Bruce Boyden says:

    Jimbino, what would you say the odds are that the American government is going to get taken over by a fascist dictatorship?

  3. Joshua says:

    Prof. Boyden, I’m pretty sure the Fourth Amendment was put into place as a backstop to prevent such a fascist dictatorship from developing. Nevertheless, if the government has gotten so used to eluding the Fourth Amendment that its best excuse is that EVERYONE has been monitored for the past six years, that strikes me as a significant cut in Americans’ privacy protections. Creeping normalcy does not mean that some of Jimbino’s implied objections/comparisons are not valid.

  4. Bruce Boyden says:

    Joshua, I can see how you might think I was asking a rhetorical question, but it’s not, it’s an actual question. Privacy and security and various other things (free speech, for example) all need to be balanced. How you weigh the balance depends on what you think the magnitude of the risks are. If you think the risks of a fascist overthrow of the government are non-trivial, then it would be pretty important to limit the government from holding even identifying information about individuals such as name, address, and religious affiliation, which is one way to read what Jimbino was suggesting by referring to the experience of the Netherlands. On the other hand, if the chance of fascist takeover is infinitesimal, then the danger of the government holding such information is reduced, and may be offset by advantages to the government holding such identifying information — apart from the religious affiliation, to use as ID verification at airports, for example. I think the chance of a fascist dictatorship is so remote as to be effectively 0, and perhaps you do too, but I don’ think that’s a universal view in the United States.

  5. Brett Bellmore says:

    Why would it have to be a facist “overthrow”? It seems to me that we’ve been gradually easing into fascism, without any need for an overthrow.

    By “fascism”, of course, I mean the economic defintion, where nominal private ownership of the means of production is retained, but the private “owners” are subject to such a high degree of detailed regulation that they function as de facto government agencies. Isn’t this what the ACA is doing to the health insurance industry? Excruciatingly detailed regulation of the nature of the coverage which may be offered, combined with a mandate that it be purchased?

  6. jt says:

    The NSA program should help the IRS make their inquiries to 501c organizations much less burdensome. What with phone records, web site postings, email, and credit card charges already available, it should be easy to measure the political activity of a group.

  7. Alan says:

    @Lawrence. You wrote “It is a lot easier for those without such responsibility to criticize governmental actions.”

    But as citizens we have a responsibility to defend our freedoms.

    The counterpoint to your point is that all the pressures on politicians with regard to terrorism are to exaggerate the threats (it’s a ridiculously low risk in the US) and make bad decisions. This is an area where they are rotten at carrying out their responsibilities.

    See Bruce Schneier’s recent commentary on the “The Politics of Security in a Democracy”.

  8. jon stanley says:

    “The seasoned Democrat Diane Feinstein calmly defends…”?

    “Seasoned” by what? Money? Power? Fear? Arrogance? Cynicism? All of the above and more? She, and her ilk in the decrepit Senate are close enough to the ‘easing into fascism’ mentioned above to make me plenty nervous.

  9. dq says:

    “one salient feature that seems to divide the viewpoints is the degree to which a person is in a position of responsibility for government administration.”

    another way to put it would be “the degree to which a person is in a position to exercise the power of government”

  10. Tyrone Grandison says:

    Interesting article and discussion. I am curious what would happen if people were aware of the programs out there to secure their Internet activity.