Reuters — U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, an analyst with a U.S. defense contractor, is seen in this still image taken from a video during an interview with the Guardian in his hotel room in Hong Kong June 6, 2013.
The American political debate over “privacy versus security” has been revived since the revelations of a classified, sweeping Internet and phone data mining surveillance program conducted by the NSA and FBI, reportedly leaked by Edward Snowden.
Is our privacy really at odds with our security? I would contend that privacy or security is a false premise. Privacy helps create real security, the security from political and even religious tyranny over our thoughts and actions. Privacy is a social space free from public oversight and interference, and it has been a key incubator for the forms of dissent that enable people to create movements that change their society for the better, in fact to reform it.
President Obama does seem to believe we as Americans have to chose between privacy and security, defending his administration’s vast surveillance efforts and citing the “trade-offs” between privacy and security. The president said, “I think it is important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he said. “You know, we are going to have to make some choices as a society.”
We do have to make choices as a society, and one important one is to reject the “privacy versus security” premise.
Privacy has helped incubate reform movements that are crucial to human freedom.
Freedom, including religious freedom, depends on protecting the right of dissent. That’s one of the main reasons protecting privacy is so crucial. Privacy means not being observed or interfered with by other people, and as such being able to function free of scrutiny, in this case, especially free of government scrutiny.
Few Christians may focus on it, but it is important to realize how often Jesus of Nazareth taught his disciples “privately,” as in these verses from Luke 10:23-24: “Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
You can miss the deeper meaning of Jesus teaching the disciples privately unless you know the context in which Jesus taught. It is important to remember Jesus pursued his ministry under Roman military occupation, and with surveillance by Jewish Temple elites who cooperated with the Romans. These may very well have been the real “prophets and kings” to whom Jesus refers who “desired to see,” or hear. Was the original meaning of Jesus teaching “privately” to prevent ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’ as in eavesdropping? It is not clear, of course, but the ministry of Jesus was considered dangerously subversive in his time, so it is no wonder that Jesus often taught the disciples “privately,” perhaps even to protect them from prying by political or religious elites.
On the other hand, some will argue, citing Romans 13:1-7, that we are not entitled, biblically speaking, to foster dissent from rulers, but in fact to “be submissive to the governing authorities” because authority “comes from God.” In this text, it seems like dissent from government policy would be disallowed per the Apostle Paul.
Context again is important in biblical interpretation. Biblical scholars have questioned whether Paul himself even wrote this section of Romans given the stylistic and content differences, and whether this section was instead added to protect Christian communities from further persecution by the Roman state. Let’s keep in mind that in the time when the Epistle to the Romans was written, the Emperor Nero ruled. Nero was known for his perverse and violent persecution of Christians. There might have been a good reason to add a section to the Epistle to the Romans. Perhaps Christians of the time wanted to provide evidence to those agents of Nero spying on Christian groups that they were not subversives and dangerous to the Roman state.
This is always the risk to reform movements, that a militarized, surveillance state will stifle their efforts at birth.
Many governments, from the Roman state to the U.S., have ugly track records of spying on people and movements, violating their privacy along the way.
The FBI kept Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. under constant surveillance, the Pentagon spied on peaceful anti-Vietnam War protestors, and the government had also been spying on the Occupy, a movement that protests against corruption, the unjust distribution of wealth in the country and the excessive influence of big corporations on U.S. policies.
Yet in each case, the country is better for such dissent being voiced and perhaps better government policy has prevailed because of such dissent. One can argue, in fact, that without the FBI’s spying on Dr. King, racist laws might arguably have been overturned sooner, that without the Pentagon’s pressures on the anti-war movement, the Vietnam War might have ended sooner, and if the peaceful Occupy protests had been subject to less suppression, our economy today might be more fair and just.
This does not mean that all dissenting groups have such noble motives as ending racism, war and poverty. And certainly not all dissenters are committed to non-violence.
Nevertheless, a free society must allow people to function with privacy in their daily lives even though such activity can pose a risk to others. A degree of policing function needs to be provided, of course, but widespread nets thrown over Internet communication or phone calls is an invitation to abuse whatever “safeguards” you may think you have provided.
Our privacy is essential for us as Americans to think and believe as we wish. Many Americans seem to be coming to that conclusion as well. A CNN/Time/ORC International poll, taken two weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, shows a dramatic shift in attitudes about trading privacy for security. “After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 54 percent of Americans favored expanded government monitoring of cellphones and email. Now, the message is ‘hands off,’ said CNN polling director Keating Holland. “Only 38 percent said they favor expanding government monitoring of those forms of communication.” On the specific issue of giving up privacy for security, the poll showed only 34 percent of those under 50 said they were willing to give up privacy for security.
Perhaps Americans are starting to realize that trading security, especially a narrow ‘security from terrorism,’ for privacy does not keep us safe over the long term.
The key point is that whether in politics or in religion, privacy has functioned as a way dissenting groups could formulate their views and organize to challenge oppressive policies. I believe it has been, and in my view, will continue to be our real security from tyranny and the ultimate guarantor of democracy.
Let us take the president at his word and assume the efforts of his administration, as well as that of Congress, are directed toward “security” and protecting Americans.
We need to say, clearly, ‘thanks but no thanks,’ if we believe that security versus privacy is a false, and/or, dangerous choice.
President Obama has invited us all to debate the privacy versus security issue. Let’s really have this debate. It is crucial.
Image by Josh Hallett