Privacy, security, or both? An elusive balance

While digital monitoring might be essential to combating terrorism, government transparency is essential to the protection of privacy.

June 17, 2013 23:00
US President Barack Obama and Chuck Hagel

US President Barack Obama and Chuck Hagel 390. (photo credit: Jim Young / Reuters)


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"Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” said Justice Louis D. Brandeis in one of the world’s most famous quotes, and “electric light the most efficient policeman.” The recent NSA affair in the United States challenges a rapid changing globe: non-state actors such as terrorist organizations aim to destroy the fundamental fabric of democracy and civil liberties. Fighting back, democracies tend to sacrifice some of those human rights, the right to privacy included. It is in this twilight zone that the above quote becomes relevant.

Ultimately dictating modern communication and transforming everything from shoe shopping to international trade, the Internet has been the foundation of an inescapable digital reality. There are very few corners of society that remain untouched by its influence, and hence undisclosed, and it is a well established necessity in the realms of business, global communication, social interaction and national security. It is a phenomenon that exists as a fait accompli above borders and local policies, creating both inconceivable human advances and unavoidable complications.

The recent American scandal, in which Edward Snowden exposed certain invasive methods employed by the NSA as preventative measures against terrorism, has created an eruption of media attention on the issues spawned by the arrival of such advanced technology.

Specifically the unsettling notion of government invasion into private web communication has forced many to reflect on the question of how to adequately balance individual privacy with national security.

US security agencies have been collecting and archiving online data from several major service providers including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.

Under the Patriot Act, US intelligence services can gain access to multiple databases for foreign and domestic information if they have probable cause to think the information is related to terrorism.

Obama defends this method, saying that one cannot have “100 percent security and also... 100 percent privacy.”

Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, claims that its digital archive is essential to monitoring terrorist activities and has stopped dozens of potential attacks, asserting that the program is not about spying on citizens but rather using the data for national safety.

“The perspective is that we’re hiding something because we’ve done something wrong. We’re not,” Alexander stated in defense of the program, “the problem is we’ve not been able to explain it because it’s classified.”

Countries in the EU have generally taken a different approach, making privacy the dominant priority when trying to strike said balance.

The right to privacy is explicitly mentioned in the Constitutions of many EU countries, including Germany and Spain, and is culturally acknowledged as a fundamental freedom.

Although digital monitoring has increased in the EU in recent years, compared to the US, its reach remains limited. For example, in 2006 a 27-member EU approved a directive that “enables security services, if necessary, to check who has been communicating with whom, from where, at what time and for how long but stops short of enabling them to check the content of any communications.”

Governments can generally only access the information with a warrant obtained on the grounds of reasonable suspicion that the activity is linked to either terrorism or organized crime, and most countries have limits as to how long such information can be stored.

At the other end of the privacy spectrum, Israeli law employs a much more “liberal” policy of digital monitoring. Over the years, Israel’s legislation increasingly allowed the exposure of personal information for both the monitoring of terrorist plots as well as routine investigations, including a law ratified by the Knesset in 2007 permitting the police to acquire digital information without a warrant.

Nimrod Kozlovski, head of Tel Aviv University’s program for cyber studies believes that the main issue with Israeli policy is how data is being transferred.

“There’s a huge difference between looking for specific information based on a particular suspicion and the constant scanning of communications to monitor the activity of a broad population,” he said.

He believes that such behaviors make digital information vulnerable to misuse and abuse. However, others defend the security measures as imperative. Fundamentalist and Islamist terrorism is still a very real threat for Israel, and it is evolving with technological progress. Therefore, it would be unrealistic to believe that a government could efficiently counter terror without some privacy infringement.

How, then, to address the challenge of accurately balancing between protecting privacy and undermining government ability? If the Internet is being used as a tool to execute terrorist attacks, how can we expect a government to provide adequate protection without allowing it to employ every safeguard available? Snowden justified his “whistleblowing” by claiming that it was not done with treasonous intent but rather motivated by his belief in the need for government transparency and open conversation.

Although he might have wrongly exposed certain aspects of American security, he has indeed opened an overdue, world-wide discussion as to what rights a modern society is willing to trade in order to secure national safety. It seems that the US has lost such an opportunity, but if nothing else, Snowden has provided other governments the chance to openly form such policies without a scandalous backdrop.

However, as many aspects of society are moving to a computer screen, it is essential to ensure that privacy rights do not fail to mirror this transformation. The difference between spying and surveillance is often determined by the transparency of the operation. Because digital monitoring is a tool used to protect the freedoms that lie at the core of a democratic society, it is only logical that civilians understand the delicate, though imperative trade-off between certain rights and their own security.

Most would agree that national security and personal safety are priorities, but when these are pursued in an invasive and secretive manner one only trades the fear of terrorism for fear of one’s own government. A balance is indeed possible, but governments cannot accomplish it behind a curtain of alleged conspiracy.

While digital monitoring might be essential to combating terrorism, government transparency is essential to the protection of privacy.

Sales of George Orwell’s 1984 soar on Amazon after NSA surveillance reports, reported Bloomberg News on June 12. Orwell’s 1984 theme, “Big Brother is Watching You,” has indeed long been a reality for mankind in the global network generation. Let us hope that we never reach Orwell’s next stage. “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.”

The author is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, a former Israeli chief negotiator and cochairman of Blue White Future. The author wishes to thank Victoria Slatton for her contribution.

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