Security versus privacy: A contrast between Israel and the US

When an issue becomes close and personal, people tend to amend their position accordingly by elevating its priority and changing their attitude in support of their own agenda

Edward Snowden 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Edward Snowden 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Following Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding scope and methodology of the NSA domestic and international spying, the discussion evolved around the proper red lines, limits, oversight and constraints that must, should or should not be imposed on those responsible for keeping us safe and free.
There is no question that the NSA’s and potentially other world intelligence agencies’ data mining of phone call records, email, records of web surfing, credit card and other financial transactions, comprise a massive invasion of privacy. It is also true that unadvertised benefits of these spying measures hinder terror attacks on innocent civilians by unearthing criminal and terrorist plots before they have a chance to transpire.
When traveling by air, people subject themselves to burdensome security screening, but very few, if any, complain about the obvious invasion of privacy. Normally, people are unhappy about the long lines and the extra time they have to spend in the airport before boarding their flight, but in the post 9-11 era, almost everyone accepts the spent time as a welcome inconvenience. Why are most travelers willing to trade off privacy for extra security in this case?
Israel is a security-conscious country. Terrorism comprises a high probability threat. Most people in the Jewish state have either witnessed the consequences of a terror attack or know at least one person who had fallen victim to it. The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), has been very successful in breaking off murderous plots before they come to pass. The Shin Bet has been effective because of the sophisticated diversified methods of snooping, spying, nosing around and undercover work this security agency has been employing. The Shin Bet’s massive breach of privacy takes little pushback by most Israelis, bar those who seek ways for harming the Jewish state. Why do we see such a statistical difference between Israel and the US when it comes to the question of security versus privacy?  
The answer to the question of where the proper balance is depends on whom you ask; it hinges upon the particular responder’s perceived proximity to risk associated with either criminal and terror activities on the one hand and private or less than kosher dealings on the other hand.
People let airport security invade a piece of their privacy because they are the ones whose lives may be at risk without it. It’s close and personal.
Most Israelis understand that freedom without security is a fake freedom. Security guaranties freedom of movement; it is a prerequisite for enjoying a meal at a restaurant with no fear of getting blown up; it guards against the possibility that a shopping experience would end up in a trip to the morgue. Terrorism risk in Israel is close and personal. The sense that ‘next time it could be me’ is real. That is why security takes such a high priority and privacy concerns move way down the priority list. It’s close and personal.
The US has experienced devastating terror with massive casualties on 9/11. But the US is a big country. New York is as far from Nebraska, Iowa or Arizona as Israel is from Romania or Italy. What happens in a faraway place inside the US may not carry the same anxiety as if it took place in one’s backyard. It may draw sympathy, anger, a burst of patriotism, calls for revenge, even criticism of security authorities, but it may not produce the same feelings of vulnerability as it would in Israel. It’s not as personal in the US as it is in a small country where everyone knows of almost everyone.
I always find it interesting that rich and famous individuals whose closest relatives fall victim to a particular disease tend to found a non-profit charity with the objective of eliminating and eradicating that particular illness. I also experience thought-provoking brainwaves, when I hear a conservative gay-bashing politician eating back his hate-filled arguments once he learns that his son or daughter has come out of the closet.
When an issue becomes close and personal, people tend to amend their position accordingly by elevating its priority and changing their attitude in support of their own agenda. They do so even when their newer stance is 180 degrees clear of where they were when the matter was less personal and more academic.
So next time, when you kvetch about the NSA’s data mining activity and their invasion of your privacy, don’t be selfish, and do not remove yourself from the scene of the crime. Imagine that these spying activities have just foiled a terrorist conspiracy to detonate a car bomb next to your bedroom window while you were dreaming about living peacefully in your free country. Envision being right there, right where the bomb could have gone off; imagine being victimized by a terror activity.
If you still believe that the NSA has been overstepping its charter, then, it is obvious. You must have failed the “imagining” exercise I have suggested above.
Dr. Avi Perry, a talk show host at Paltalk News Network (PNN), is the author of Fundamentals of Voice Quality Engineering in Wireless Networks, and more recently, 72 Virgins, a thriller about the covert war on Islamic terror. He was Vice President at NMS Communications, a Bell Laboratories - distinguished staff member and manager, as well as a delegate of the US and Lucent Technologies to the ITU—the UN International Standards body in Geneva, a professor at Northwestern University and an Intelligence expert for the Israeli Government. He may be reached through his web site