Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Liberty and safety

Much of the developed world is debating government spying, and the reactions vary widely. People who value freedom and liberty ought to be paying more attention—and they should care.

While the negative reactions have been sparked by revelations of spying by the US government, the truth is that it’s widespread and common, and singling out the US for special condemnation is both naïve and hypocritical. The fact is, not just the USA and all of its allies, but most of the powerful nations in the world spy on law-abiding citizens: EU nations, Russia, Iran, China, etc., all spy on innocent people for reasons ranging from suppression of dissent, through to stealing commercial secrets, through to some supposed effort at keeping their society “safer”.

The issue isn’t that the US is particularly bad, it’s that citizens of the world aren’t paying attention to what governments are doing in their names. We citizens must debate the underlying issues and take the decisions away from shadowy secretive government agencies.

We need to ask, first, what price liberty? Is there an acceptable trade-off between liberty and safety? And, if so, at what point?

The truth is, every day we willingly give up some of our freedom and we consent to being monitored. Have a cellphone? The cellphone company knows where you (or the phone) are. Use a loyalty card? The store/service provider knows what you buy, when, how often you shop and where, etc. Use a credit card or debit card? The bank knows about everything you spend money on. Are you on a social network? Most people freely reveal far more information about themselves than governments typically gather, and when you allow that network to monitor your location, you make it possible for it to keep track of your movements, too—just like the world’s spy agencies do.

The thing is, it’s clearly not merely about us being tracked or monitored, it’s about governments doing it. Here in New Zealand, Parliament is considering a bill to give the government spy agency greater permission to spy on law-abiding citizens, but without any external oversight to ensure the spies’ activities are lawful. As a result, we can have zero confidence that the spy agency isn’t acting out of bounds.

Tech Liberty, a New Zealand group dedicated to defending civil liberties in the digital age, summed up this conundrum in their submission to Parliament today:
“Bringing this back to civil liberties and the NZ Bill of Rights – can the powers being granted by this Bill and the consequent impact on our rights and freedoms be demonstrably justified as necessary in a free and democratic society?”
Free societies are built on the assumption and expectation that law-abiding people should be free from unwarranted—literally and figuratively—government observation of their day-to-day lives. We expect privacy as an integral part of our freedom and liberty—except when we ourselves choose to allow surveillance, or when a court agrees that it’s necessary.

Nearly all of us would support the monitoring of those who pose a clear threat of terrorism, etc. Most of us would support the monitoring of those who seem likely to possibly pose such a threat—but most of us would also expect that such spying be done within the bounds of the law, that people are presumed innocent and that there has to be some sort of probable cause proven to a court—not just wholesale trawling for information in the hope that something, somewhere might possibly be useful some day.

Tech Liberty also summed up the threat to liberty of government spying they justify on supposed “security” concerns:
“We believe that concentrating this sort of power in the hands of a government agency is a far greater threat to our personal security than any paranoid dreams of overseas terrorists and Nigerian Internet scammers.”
Only a free society regulates the police power, and that includes the power of governments to spy on law-abiding citizens. Will New Zealand pull back from curtailing individual liberty? Or will they use real or imaginary “threats” as their justification for forcing us to sacrifice liberty?

This whole thing reminds me of the famous quote from Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” To avoid that choice, we must first agree on the limits we want governments to operate under. If we can’t agree on that, then we shouldn’t be surprised when our elected governments go too far in our name.

In a democracy, the people are supposed to control their governments, not the other way around. It’s good to see the people starting to assert their democratic power. I just hope there’s still time to restore the proper balance.

1 comment:

rogerogreen said...

And it's tougher to go off the grid...