Conflicting Expectations

By Erin Drushel
Erin Drushel
Erin Drushel
It was a two-for-one sale on privacy last week when a whistle-blower revealed that the National Security Association (NSA) has been authorized to track all Verizon phone records – including telephone numbers and duration of calls made, stopping short of listening in to conversations.  A program known as PRISM was also uncovered which allows the US government access to servers within a number of large US technology firms including Google, Apple and Facebook.

Undoubtedly these stories will play out in the media for some time.  Questions about the whistle-blower’s motivations for sharing the information and whether or not he is a patriot or a traitor will be debated in the coming weeks.  Congress is already divided on the issue but, perhaps surprisingly, not along party lines.  Both Democrats and Republicans are condemning the programs as an invasion of privacy while others are praising them as an important tool for protecting the nation against terrorist attacks.

Personally, I value my privacy and resent the idea of being tracked – it’s one of the reasons I no longer have a cell phone, or use GPS, or use the nebulous “Cloud” to store the information I input into my personal computer – to me it’s tantamount to surgically implanting a tracking device into myself.  Now obviously I’m not immune to being tracked as I use the internet, but I have drawn my line in the sand as best I can.

However, for this article I’ve endeavoured to put that thinking to one side.

As a society we expect our governments to protect us from outside threats.  With that in mind, what are our expectations for how that protection is achieved?  Do we even really think about it – or just expect it?

How can we expect the government to protect us if we don’t approve of anything they do?  When the TSA was granted more authority to do pat-downs and searches at airports there was a public outcry; when racial profiling occurs we are outraged; when telephone data and internet data are collected, it’s an invasion of privacy; in Boston, during the man-hunt following the marathon bombings, there was an outcry that homes were being systematically searched without a warrant for the suspect; then there are spies.  We’ve learned to accept that spies are sexy and mysterious thanks to books and Hollywood.  But just what do we think they are spying on if not private information?  So again, just what exactly do we expect the government to do?

Maybe an even better question is: why is it not okay for governments to track our information, but it’s okay for companies to track it?  Maybe if the government gave us 15% off our next purchase and a club membership that would make it okay.

I don’t have an answer.  I do believe this is an opportunity for the public and the government to discuss what the expectations are and what the acceptable trade-offs are to achieve those expectations.  Outrage is a good initial response but it’s unproductive.

We all know a police state won’t work.  A police state will only further aggravate outside (and inside) resentment toward the United States.  But, if the public can’t approve some level of government secrecy in trying to protect the nation, then we must accept the fact that terrorist attacks will be more likely.  It’s just not possible to have it both ways.

– Erin Drushel

1 comment
  1. The problem is, as events in Toronto and Ottawa are showing this week, you aren’t even safe in prison. Guard brutality, often unprovoked, is common and condoned. Well patrolled streets? Look at the lawsuits, criminal and civil, arising from the police riots associated with the G20 summit that are coming before the courts. And those are the guardians who profess their desire to serve and protect.

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? (who guards the guardians)? They surely have a most overblown sense of their own entitlement.

    Right now the media are full of stories of police raids on a stand of Toronto apartment buildings that has become something of a ghetto for Somali refugees. The raids were long planned and co-ordinated, with branch operations in Windsor and Edmonton. They were very successful; over 40 people said to have been involved in gun-running, drug smuggling, and related anti-social misbehaviour were arrested and 40 guns and $3 million worth of drugs (the police estimate, credibility unknown) were seized. The raids were the result of a year’s surveillance, according to police claims. Nice work?

    An aside: a persistent rumour says that police picked up news of a cellphone video containing scenes most embarrassing to the current mayor. The police refuse to confirm or deny these rumours. But were they picked up in the period when the police union was negotiating its current sweetheart contract? Jes sayin’.

    While there were some exceedingly nasty culprits involved, there were many innocents, women and children, who woke in the pre-dawn darkness to splintering wood as their doors were battered down and the explosions, noise and smoke of military-type thunderflash stun grenades. A year’s spying, and they didn’t know there were women and children present and vulnerable? And in some cases, that the malefactors sought weren’t even there? There are also questions about when warrants authorizing various police action were obtained – or if – and if they were shown as the law requires.

    We most emphatically do not want immigrant gangs from the most lawless parts of Africa packing illegal guns while they peddle addictive drugs to our schoolchildren. We need to exert rigid and effective control at all times – or yield to chaos.

    But in our justified fear, should we give unlimited, unbridled, unsupervised authority to groups who have shown far too much inclination to abuse it? When does the cure become worse than the disease?

    Eric Blair understood the peril all too well in 1948, the year he penned his prescient dystopian novel 1984. Far less well known was his satirical study of how these dystopias develop, “Animal Farm”.

    Before we yield to terror, before we become so paranoid that we will yield up our irreplaceable freedoms for a chimerical security, we need – all of us and our kids – to read “Orwell’s” seminal works again, and compare them with where we are, where we are going, and where we want to go.

    And then we can confidently tell our spooks what they can and cannot do. And it is past time we did.

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