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Charlie Vignola: Giving up freedom and privacy for security

Posted: June 18, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: June 18, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Two weeks have gone by since Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old computer tech working as an NSA contractor, leaked information about classified government information to the press, effectively exposing top secret programs designed to combat terrorism and save American lives.

Of course, the right-wing media have been positively gleeful at all of the consternation this has been causing the Obama administration. They figure it serves ‘em right, since leaks during the Bush administration spilled the beans about torturing terrorism suspects, abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens — now it’s the liberals’ turn to squirm.

In all fairness, this situation does force progressives to consider things in a new light and ask themselves the same tough questions that conservatives did during the Bush administration. Most importantly: how much freedom and privacy are we willing to surrender for our security?

The answer to this question becomes increasingly slippery as new technologies provide us ever more advanced tools to do the job, all while chipping away at our liberties in ways that just weren’t even conceivable 50 or 100 years ago.

For example, the Founding Fathers couldn’t have imagined the concept of predictive analytics, a new science that allows us to forecast future events and behaviors based on filtering information in vast collections of data.

The CBS TV show "Person of Interest" features a slightly futuristic version of this technology, but reality is catching up quicker than you think.

The news that broke two weeks ago about the NSA having access to massive amounts of data from Internet service providers and collecting phone call information from Verizon are both examples of programs designed to seek out the signal within the noise, combing mountains of digital info to find patterns that could allow us to track terrorist behavior and interrupt plots before they strike.

We already take it in stride that companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon scoop up data about our Internet use and take advantage of it for commercial purposes, selling the info to other companies and sending us targeted ads.

It would seem bizarre to accept such exploitation of our Internet data to sell us goods and services, yet ignore its value to intercept terrorists.

The erosion of privacy also seems to be a generational issue. My kids have grown up living more of their lives in public, using all sorts of social media and visiting all kinds of websites that quietly gather reams of data on them for who knows what purposes, yet they think nothing of it because "everybody" is doing it, so essentially everyone is in the same boat.

Such thinking may turn out to be woefully naïve at some future date when all that data can be used against them in some paranoid sci-fi scenario out of "1984," yet more and more people seem remarkably comfortable giving up a bit of freedom or privacy if it means a greater measure of convenience and security.

But the security we enjoy from advanced technologies is no illusion. It wasn’t every man, woman and child in Boston toting around firearms that caught the Boston Marathon Bombers in record time, but the omnipresent security cameras and smartphones that allowed us to identify the bombers and instantly disseminate their photos.

Now, do we want to go the way of Great Britain and install security cameras in all public spaces if the payoff is far lower crime rates and faster crime solving?

Your answer to that probably depends on your personal level of paranoia and how much you fear or trust your own municipal, state and federal governments.

But there’s a world of difference between healthy skepticism of our elected officials and full-tilt paranoia that they intend to inject you with microchips, poison you with vaccinations and GMOs and eventually herd you into FEMA camps for sterilization, brainwashing and torture.

If you have knee-jerk distrust of everything our government does, then any leak is good news and every leaker is a hero. The reality, of course, is far more complicated.

Some are comparing the NSA leaks to Watergate, but this is a false analogy. In Watergate, a government insider leaked information to the press about President Nixon actually breaking the law.

Snowden, on the other hand, has leaked information about lawful programs he fears could be abused to deprive Americans of their Fourth Amendment rights — yet thus far, there’s no evidence of this actually happening.

National security has always required a certain level of secrecy to work effectively and keep our enemies in the dark as to how we intend to thwart them, and of course leaks to the press about such programs threaten their efficacy, potentially putting American lives at risk.

But I think we can all agree that the government’s need for occasional secrecy must be balanced with the public’s right to know what’s being done in the name of their security, and that’s always the tricky part — whether it’s a Democratic or Republican administration.

Charlie Vignola is a former college Republican turned liberal Democrat. He lives in Fair Oaks Ranch, works in the motion picture industry and loves his wife and kids.


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