“How many lives is our privacy worth?”

“Not one!” most reply

“Why not?”

“Well some things, like freedom, are worth sacrificing life for; but not for just privacy.”

“So you have no problems with the amount of private information being vacuumed from our phones and computers?”

“Wait a minute. No, I hate that, and I wish it wasn’t necessary. But imagine if they stopped doing it and a terrorist bombed another building, plane, or sports event?”

“So you’re saying that you are willing to give up privacy rather than risk one life being killed in a bomb?”

“Yes, I suppose I am saying that.”

Just a candy bar?
It sounds like he’s just giving up a candy bar doesn’t it? I mean who’d sacrifice a life for a candy bar? Just give it up, man. Judging by stunning opinion polls, that seems to be the view of a majority of voters about the loss of their right to privacy.

But is privacy nothing more than a candy bar? In last week’s Wall Street JournalPeggy Noonan reflected on the dangers of the surveillance state we are now living in and argued persuasively that it is fundamentally changing us as a nation, and as individuals:

Privacy is connected to personhood. It has to do with intimate things—the innards of your head and heart, the workings of your mind—and the boundary between those things and the world outside. A loss of the expectation of privacy in communications is a loss of something personal and intimate, and it will have broader implications.

In conversation with Noonan, 80-year-old journalist and civil libertarian Nat Hentoff said that we are in serious danger of losing the Fourth Amendment which protects “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Threatened and Frightened
When teaching a class at Harvard last year, Hentoff connected the loss of privacy with the loss of freedom:

If citizens don’t have basic privacies—firm protections against the search and seizure of your private communications, for instance—they will be left feeling “threatened.” This will make citizens increasingly concerned “about what they say, and they do, and they think.” It will have the effect of constricting freedom of expression. Americans will become careful about what they say that can be misunderstood or misinterpreted, and then too careful about what they say that can be understood. The inevitable end of surveillance is self-censorship.”

If you don’t have free speech you have to be afraid, you lack a vital part of what it is to be a human being who is free to be who you want to be.” Your own growth as a person will in time be constricted, because we come to know ourselves by our thoughts.

This is so, so true. I can already count a few times when I was about to write something in an email or on a blog about the IRS and, I admit, I hesitated and then decided not to. I mean, who wants to trigger an IRS audit? What about even this blog post? I certainly thought twice about whether to write it as I fear it might contain too many KEYWORDS and attract Lois Lerner’s beady eyes. Or the NSA’s.

The land of the free?
I’ve never thought these thoughts in my life before. And I’m thinking them in “the land of the FREE!” I’m just stunned that Americans are giving up so much of their nation and of themselves with barely a whimper. I expected this of Europe, but not of America.

The nation that sacrificed 400,000 American lives (plus 600,000 injured) to free Europe seems unwilling to give up even one life to secure personal freedom at home.

There’s no question that if we ever manage to roll back the omnipresent surveillance beast, and regain our right to privacy, that, yes, terrorists will succeed more than before. Precious lives will be lost in more regular terrorist atrocities. Many civilian lives. Many children’s lives. Maybe my children’s lives. How many lives would be too many to ensure the right to privacy? How many a year? 1,000? 10,000? 100,000?

If you’ve got nothing to hide…
When I used to hear about the increasing invasions of our privacy, my view was, “No big deal, I’ve got nothing to hide, so nothing to lose.” But I now agree with Noonan; even if we have nothing to hide, we are losing too much with the loss of privacy. It’s a slow loss, a subtle loss, a seemingly painless loss, but it’s a radically transformative loss. It’s changing us all, and not for the better.

And so I come back to this hard question, “How many lives is our privacy worth?”

If none, prepare to change fundamentally as a people and as a nation.

In fact, if you answer “None!” you’ve already changed.

  • Paul A. Toman

    You’ve already noted the chilling effect the loss of privacy has on speech. It also has a chilling effect on the free exercise of religion. The Framers understood the connection between free speech and the free exercise of religion has evidenced in the First Amendment. It is now apparent that an erosion of the Fourth Amendment has a dramatic affect on the rights guarded by the First Amendment.

  • http://leomcneil.net Steven Birn

    Actually Doc, you do have something to hide. Your communications with members of our congregation are privileged in the same way that my communications with my legal clients are privileged. It’s no one’s business what advice I provide to my clients, just like it’s no one’s business what members of the congregation might say to you in confidence. (doctors have a similar issue with their patients.

    If the government can step in and listen to our conversations at will or even if they can view how many times a member of the congregation called you or a client of mine called me it could potentially violate our privileges. To say nothing of violating the 4th amendment.

  • http://www.allthingsexpounded.com/ Mark Nenadov

    Great post, brother!

    I think the “lives saved” by invasions of privacy are greatly exaggerated. I hate to put it like this, but it’s accurate to say: Many lies about the effectiveness of such programs have been propagated–even by members of Congress.

    A congressman from your state was going about boasting about 54 terrorist attacks were stopped by the NSA program. And then reality came out, either he was severely ignorant or lying. The NSA deputy directory testified that it only thwarted 1 and “contributed” to 13 other actions.

    One “threat averted” claim that has been bandied about recently was surveillance that nabbed a taxi driver who was giving money to al-Shabab in Somalia. Yes, al-Shabab is classified as a terrorist organization, however….. it isn’t so simple as that. al-Shabab was also his tribal group–a group he has a long standing identity with based on where he came from. It can hardly be proved that he had any intentions to support terrorism, nor can that violation of his privacy be proved to be linked to a particular terror plot. And the amount of money he gave was hardly significant in terms what it could accomplish.

    So, I think we also need to simply be careful about even accepting such numbers about “lives saved” uncritically.

    Like many other liberties, privacy is a liberty that has value even when it isn’t “needed”. Like you’ve said, violations of privacy create an environment where even actions that don’t need privacy persay. There is also a powerful “self-censorship” that occurs when there is a lack of privacy.

    It’s also curious that the very agencies that are insisting on violating privacy are actually quite private about their own activities!

    We can’t have an expectation of privacy in all contexts of life, but we need some. It isn’t healthy to be always watched. And good civic hygene requires a good balance where people know there are “safe” areas where they can speak their mind and communicate privately.