Privacy v Security is a Balancing Act

The precautionary closing this weekend of nearly two dozen American diplomatic facilities around the world due to a suspected terrorist threat refocuses public attention on a crucial, if sometimes forgotten, fact; there are still bad people out there who want to kill us.
That may sound simplistic to say it. But it needs saying, explicitly, as the debate continues over the NSA spying program, the government’s email and telephone metadata snooping, and the search for the right balance between civil liberties and needed vigilance.
Watching the debate unfold, first in the U.S., where I was living when contractor Edward Snowden made his revelations, and now from China, I’ve gone back and forth as to where I stand.  I, like many others, dislike the idea that the government might be (and I stress, might be) keeping tabs on my private communications, including my email traffic and keeping records on who, or where, I call.  The debate, culminating in the narrow House of Representatives vote to keep the digital surveillance program intact, has been a useful one to have.
But the closing of the embassies is a sober reminder of why we need these intelligence gathering tools in the first place.  As if any more reminders were needed, since we just suffered through the Boston Marathon bombing, which happened when I was living across the river in Cambridge.  The emerging storyline that the elder brother accused of masterminding the bombing may have become radicalized while on a visit to his native Chechnya, and that the two suspects learned how to build their pressure cooker bombs via the Internet, should have been enough to convince even the most cautious civil libertarian that sometimes you want the government tracking certain phone calls and email traffic.
The fear, as I understand it — and as expressed by liberal Democrats on the left, and libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky)on the far right — is that the collection of all this personal data represents the proverbial  “slippery slope” that might one day allow a Big Brother-type of autocratic American government to keep tabs on its own citizens.
I agree that’s a very real concern for the future, and it’s why we need public debate, full disclosure and oversight by the courts and Congress — precisely the system we have in place now.  But for the moment, I’m actually more concerned with the very real, existential threat we face from evil people who want to blow up our embassies and airplanes and kill as many Americans and other Westerners as possible.  The first threat is hypothetical.  The second one exists in the here and now, and it’s the one that terrifies me most.
Perhaps it’s living on and off in the People’s Republic of China that gives me a slightly different perspective.  Here, I take it as a given that email traffic is being monitored, phone calls are being recorded if not listened to, and anywhere I travel in the country is being closely watched, from the moment I book an airline ticket.  Check into any hotel in China, and your name and passport number is recorded at the front desk and that information collected daily by your friendly local Public Security Bureau.  And China has perhaps the world’s most ubiquitous system of closed-circuit security cameras.
In other words, if you want to see a real Big Brother state in action, come to China.
I said in a blog post after the Boston bombings that I think Americans have become spoiled.  We jealously guard our precious freedoms, and we see even a full-body scan at the airport as an intrusive invasion of our privacy.  But at the same time, we want to be and feel 100 percent safe.  And after any attack or attempted attack, we begin to look for scapegoats and want to know instantly why the plot was not detected and disrupted sooner.  We can’t have it both ways.
And I’ll extend that to the Internet.  We want all the convenience of instant communication with friends and family.  We want to be able to book our airline tickets ourselves, online, do all of our banking and financial transactions from our home laptops, and to use our handheld devices for everything from making a restaurant reservation to booking a cab.  We post endless photos of ourselves and family updates and personal details on an endless number of social networking sites.  And yet, at the same time, we express shock and horror that the government may be snooping on any of our personal data.
I’ll say it again; you can’t have it both ways.
From my China experience, I guess I don’t believe sending an email carries with it any expectation of absolute privacy.  Or talking on a cell phone.  When I had something sensitive to discuss with one of my office staffers, we would routinely take a walk outside in the parking lot, on the assumption that the office was bugged.  And I learned to avoid using email for anything I didn’t want picked up by prying eyes.
I think what you can expect in the U.S. is just a reasonable expectation of privacy, and realize that there is a balance.  There’s a balance between your privacy and the government’s legitimate security needs at a time when there are people out there who want to harm us.  And there’s a balance between the convenience of the digital world, and the expectation that what you write, or say, is not being monitored or stored.  Reasonable is enough for me.
If you want absolute privacy for your conversation, try writing a letter longhand and using a courier service with a sealed envelope.  Or better yet, put down the cell phone, stop texting and WeChatting and WhatsApping and take a walk with your friend in a park to engage in a conversation the old fashioned way.
Who knows?  You may even find you like it.
Agree?  Disagree?  I welcome all (respectful) comments, questions and insights. The comments section awaits!