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Technology opens doors to our privacy

June 21, 2013

It’s a question with no correct answer. Is the loss of our privacy a valid price to pay for greater security? Or, as Ben Franklin once suggested, are those who sacrifice one for the other bound to lose both?

The NSA claims that it is only collecting metadata, described as “data about data.” Theoretically, this is one step removed from more egregious acts of eavesdropping that involve listening into phone conversations or reading email. And because the NSA wants the metadata, it too must be revealing.

Certainly, it’s difficult to trust a government explanation. Because the secrecy has gone on to this extent for so long, the government has lost both credibility and believability. It very well might not be reading our email, but we have no way of knowing for certain.

That’s the problem with opening the door — even a crack — to government snooping. It’s similar to a drug addiction; it is difficult to quit and usually leads to craving more.

The government and most of America’s establishment seems to believe that taking note of a phone number or an email address is no different than reading the address off a sealed envelope at the post office. There can be no expectation that this address is a private affair, since it’s traveling through many hands on its journey to the recipient.

Indeed, that is the standard of the courts: Can we reasonably assume that the material in question will remain private, and would society agree with our assumption? So here, the government would appear to be on relatively solid footing, at least from a legal perspective.

Beyond legality, of course, is practicality, and here the government assures us that a number of terrorist attacks have been thwarted due to this data mining.

That is no small consideration. On the face of it, few would say that the sanctity of the phone numbers they have called takes precedence over human life.

But this issue is more difficult than face value would hold.

No one trusts government completely, but we do have a relative expectation that it is going to be relatively fair and just. That basic trust is crucial, and the domestic snooping that has evolved out of the Patriot Act deals that trust a serious blow.

How can we trust the government to know where to draw the line between the collection of metadata and unauthorized intrusion into individual correspondence? Sadly, we can’t.

It’s almost getting to the point where we can write nothing and say nothing in electronic correspondence that we would not feel comfortable shouting from the hilltop.

We do not believe the government is about to embark on witch hunts or come after innocent citizens in the dark of night. But we do realize that, at the confluence of terror and technology, we are treading on new, uncomfortable ground.

There is no explicit right of privacy, it is true, although this might be one the Founding Fathers would want to do over. Because without it, our lives are fair game anytime we step out the front door or put our hands on a piece of electronics. It is something we all need to acknowledge, no matter how disagreeable we might find it.

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