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A farewell to privacy

In the name of ever-increasing security, we are giving up an essential component of democracy

By Alexander E. Hooke

2:00 PM EDT, August 28, 2013

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"Can we say then … that the general economy of power in our societies is becoming a domain of security?" Michel Foucault, 1978

In 1791, the Fourth Amendment — sanctifying what we now call the human right to privacy — became part of the Bill of Rights. Barely had the ink of the signatures dried when it was already threatened by government. Congress immediately planned to take a census of the newly established country's population, only to be met by numerous citizens resisting officials poking their heads onto their property and asking about their children, size of home, how many males and females were over the age of 16.

More than two centuries later, the right to privacy continues to be threatened and violated. While the focus has changed from physical space and home life to information and data about everyone's behavior and contacts, invasion of privacy might be the only government action that enjoys ongoing bipartisan support. It hardly matters whether the president is Republican or Democrat, or whether Congress is run by conservatives or liberals, as they always find reasons to suspect and spy on their own citizens.

The threat to the Fourth Amendment is fueled by two sources: rapid advances in technology and insidious policies masked by incessant cheers about serving the public good. One early case involved the secrecy of personal mail, which Benjamin Franklin tried to guarantee for all users of his postal system. Yet governments invariably asserted their authority to open up politically rebellious missives or morally corrupting materials. In the 1880s, New Yorker Anthony Comstock led an anti-vice movement demanding the government manipulate all personal mails to identify and seize sexual aids and contraceptives, as well as obscene pictures and writings. Imagine if Comstock were reincarnated amid today's ubiquitous obscenities.

Inventions of the telegraph and telephone surely speeded and expanded the scope of communication, opening the world for innumerable people. But their everyday use readily enabled the invasion of personal privacy. Current social media are drastic extensions of those inventions.

Advocates of security claim that the right of privacy can be excessive. Surely, they contend, it is for the public good that our governments need to suspend privacy rights in order to catch criminals, hackers, spies, terrorists, pedophiles, traitors, immigrants and innumerable social miscreants. And in the name of the common good, governments are also watching who exercises, drinks a large soda, navigates social media, has healthy sex or eats fatty foods.

Such advocacy has become blind to the excessive emphasis on security. Its proponents refuse to specify limits and at what point personal or group privacy cannot be violated. This bipartisan refusal to protect the Fourth Amendment reveals how governments belittle the fact that privacy is central to each citizen's chance for a life of liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness.

There are several reasons behind security's prominence.

First, security is big business. Shopping malls, museums, college campuses, gated communities, airports, stadiums, and now elementary schools and urban marathons devote considerable budgets to guards, computer experts and surveillance gadgets. Second, security is easier to promote than privacy. By its nature, private life is unannounced. We quietly respect one another's personal lives. Security, by contrast, is visible. Fences, border controls, police and alarm systems are among the mechanisms to show that governments are securing our safety. In addition, the rhetoric behind security thrives on inflammatory and hyperbolic rhetoric. Every mishap becomes a crisis; we must prepare for a war on this or that; everyone is a potential criminal or terrorist.

Third, science and security are veritable soulmates. The technology to extend security rather than protect privacy is more effective and available to governments, but also to other institutions and businesses. Consider two inventions that will likely enter our daily lives within the next decade. Drones, already a chief weapon in recent wars, are being marketed to governments as well as savvy and ambitious interest groups. These unmanned flying machines can trace the movements of all types of citizens. The state of Texas is already using drones against Mexican immigrants; state police have resorted to their use; and PETA activists are seeking affordable drones to identify poachers and illegal hunters. Last year a tiny, nearly invisible "electronic hummingbird" was selected as one of the year's top 100 inventions. Equipped with a nano-camera, it can survey the minutest motions of any target. When its price drops and efficiency improves, anyone with a remote will be able keep a gaze on vagabonds, voluptuous teens, suspicious spouses, slothful employees, even the neighborhood party one was not invited to.

It is understandable that many commentators believe 9/11 has radically altered our attitudes towards the tenets of the Fourth Amendment. To the contrary, the last 10 years have been a continuation of — not an exception to — the ongoing struggle between privacy and security. Without resistance across the political spectrum, the onslaught upon the basic human right of privacy will continue to erode a key component of democracy and the good life.

Alexander E. Hooke is a professor of philosophy at Stevenson University. His email is ahooke@stevenson.edu.