Discussions about privacy rights often end with the flippant question, why do you care so much about privacy; what are you trying to hide? Of course, most people don’t really believe what this question implies—that privacy has no value other than to shield criminal or embarrassing behavior—but many people do believe that privacy has limited value. Privacy is often viewed as an individual, emotional convenience or comfort rather than as an essential ingredient of a free society. Consequently, in a society that is ever more communal and connected, this mistaken assessment of privacy causes it to be undervalued and sacrificed far too easily—especially when it conflicts with values like security and stability. Even among conservatives—who once upon a time were skeptical of big brother government—privacy rights have gained a bad reputation because of its association with Supreme Court cases dealing with controversial sexual issues and abortion.
Bad reputation notwithstanding, privacy remains an essential ingredient of a free society. The founding generation believed it to be so important that they amended the constitution to protect it:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Privacy is essential because it insulates the people from the power of government, so when government oversteps its bounds, privacy gives the people an opportunity to resist. To the extent that privacy is diminished, the people’s ability to resist government abuses is diminished as well. The bare truth is that government is kept in check only when it fears what the people might do if it steps too far outside of its boundaries. If the election process is functioning with reasonable integrity, then the threat of the ballot box will check government somewhat; but if the election process breaks down, if government decides to ignore the people’s will, then the only check remaining on government abuse is fear by government officials that the people will use force to reclaim their lost freedom.
Before I go any further, let me make it clear that I am not an anarchist. In my opinion the present political/social climate in the United States is nowhere near oppressive enough to justify violent revolution. Whatever flaws that may exist in the election process, we still have a representative government. Consequently, the appropriate way to express displeasure over the actions of elected officials is to speak and vote, not plot and fight.
But this has not always been the case. Don’t forget that the United States was born in a violent revolution. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and many others who we now call patriots, were then considered traitors and criminals by their government, and they would have been executed had the Revolutionary War turned out differently. Around the world it is easy to find other examples, ancient and modern, of situations in which governments grew so oppressive that violent revolution became necessary. My point is simply that violent revolution is sometimes necessary to reclaim liberty, and it would be naive to the point of foolishness to believe that it could never happen again—even here in the United States.
Considering the unpleasant reality that violent revolution is sometimes necessary, it is easy to see why privacy is so important. Privacy permits people to gather and speak without the government knowing what was said. It allows neighbors to talk about the nation’s problems—political as well as social—without their statements being reviewed by a government bureaucrat. This means that outliers who might use force before it would be appropriate can be talked out of rash actions by their friends and family without government agents appearing at their door the next day. Privacy creates the possibility of anonymity, and anonymity is a mask that allows individuals and groups to resist a government that has far more power than any of them could hope to resist without that mask. Anonymity permits a person to resist government oppression without having to fear immediate reprisal.
A discussion of privacy would be incomplete and one-sided without acknowledging that privacy also permits criminal behavior. Criminals regularly abuse anonymity to harm their neighbors and avoid punishment. Security and privacy conflict sometimes. The solution, however, is not to abandon privacy and allow government to monitor our communications and interactions anytime, anywhere. This is where the concept of a warrant comes into play; it is a compromise between privacy and security. If the government can show probable cause to believe that criminal acts are afoot, then a judge can grant permission to invade the privacy of the suspects.
This solution isn’t new, and it shouldn’t be unfamiliar. But the careful compromise that American citizens have relied upon for so many years is being challenged today. Technology permits private, in-person discussions to be intercepted remotely, and when technology is used to communicate, the conversation can be captured with little more than a keystroke. The ease with which the government can invade a person’s privacy creates the misleading idea that it is somehow non-intrusive because of the technology used, and this has confused many Americans. Compound that with high-visibility terrorist attacks and suddenly the right to privacy comes under fire.
I’m not suggesting that we are living 1984, We, Fahrenheit 451, A Brave New World, or some other dystopia, but there is an important debate going on right now about where to strike the balance between security and privacy. From what I can tell, privacy is losing.