“Modest Encroachments” Debate Needed

by Mike Wendy on June 9, 2013

“It is important to recognize that you can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience,” said President Obama on Friday in defending the recent disclosure of two Internet surveillance programs used by the government to deter terrorism. He added, “We are going to have to make some choices as a society. What I can say is that, when evaluating the programs, they make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent terrorist activity.”

The costs, according to the President, are only “modest encroachments” on our personal privacy.

Maybe.  Or, maybe not.

Our communications networks are indeed amazing tools.  Not only do they serve us economically and societally, they also protect us.  As to the latter, this has long been.  In fact, the very first section of the Communications Act of 1934 Act implicitly recognizes the partnership Uncle Sam and our communication providers have in protecting our national defense, as well as other public safety matters.

It is true that U.S. communications companies are compelled by court order to provide assistance. But, other cooperation also occurs. Still, the partnership – where properly checked and balanced – is necessary. Our networks are a source for positive change, but in the hands of bad actors they can also be employed to bring about tremendous damage and human suffering.  It would be foolish to leave our networks unguarded.

This week’s news provides Americans with an important glimpse into how our national defense and communications sectors work to protect our nation.  Importantly, it gives us a chance to question what the balance is, what are choices are, and continue the debate on just how much privacy we can reasonably expect in our increasingly networked world.

To be honest, I am disturbed, but not surprised, by the sweep of the programs.  Moreover, the President’s comments, while forthcoming (after essentially being busted by leaks) seem to suggest that Americans might no longer enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy when using the Internet.

I hope this is not the case.

To a great extent, U.S. communications providers are legally hogtied from telling their side of the story about these recent disclosures. Still, they must do more to help Americans trust that the information they put over the Internet remains safe and secure, and not easily subject to vague and arbitrary sweeps to protect the homeland.

The Internet can be a rough and tumble place, which most Internet users know and begrudgingly accept.  That said, we all deserve to use the Internet – a tool which many government and industry representatives equate to an essential human right – in a manner that does not put our lives in peril.

We must know more about these “modest encroachments.”  The balance in protecting the homeland and our privacy seems out of whack.  “Trust us,” coming from a government that is embroiled in numerous trust-challenging scandals, is not enough.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mammia June 10, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Well said. The biggest fear is that the same government that has given us the IRS, Eric Holder’s Department of Justice, the EPA turning over personal information of family farmers to far left ecological organizations, etc., will continue this administration’s rush to “protect us” out of all our freedoms. Carry on the good work.

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Gator Dad June 10, 2013 at 11:48 pm

Good article. To be or not to be, that is the question. I wonder how Congress is processing the thought that they could be screened too. Blackberries don’t lie. Maybe this is the beginning of face to face talk. No paper trails. Just a handshake.

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