Blame Government, Not Technology, For Lack of Privacy

Some of the most important issues facing Americans in this age of constantly evolving and improving technology are privacy, personal liberty, and government transgressions against these valuable rights. Although the market has provided us with a plethora of tools and innovations at our disposal, these advances also pave the way for Big Brother’s eyes to be able to see more. Finding the means to balance liberty and security is just one more essential task that our generation must tackle.

On August 11, 2001, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in San Francisco shut off cell phone service in four of its downtown stations while anticipating a large protest planned in support of Charles Blair Hill, who was shot and killed by BART police on July 3. I remember that night very vividly; I was at the Civic Center BART station when suddenly I couldn’t use my phone anymore. It was eerie, and I immediately felt powerless. There’s no doubt the protesters — exercising their constitutional right to assemble and redress grievances — shared my fears.

In response to the London riots, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron hinted at possibly giving the police the ability to shut down social network sites like Facebook and Twitter during times of “unrest.”

In July, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Alex Kozinski argued that the incredible advancements in technology have actually made the Fourth Amendment obsolete. Kozinski argued that private-sector innovations in communications and the ability of people to acquire instantaneous access to information, products and services had allowed governments to expand their surveillance.

And just over the weekend, it was revealed that the FBI has been spying on the website Antiwar.com since at least 2004. The FBI — supposedly in charge of providing centralized intelligence and police work and catching violent criminals — is spending tax money on investigating non-profits for supposed “subversion.” 

It is obvious that Kozinski has it completely backwards. It is not private innovation, but government fingerprints, that are the true threat to our privacy and liberty. While arguing that the Fourth Amendment is now irrelevant in this age of Blackberrys and Skype, he forgets that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution in general are not checks on individual action, but government action.

It is definitely true that private entities have violated individual privacy, but more often than not, it is under direct government order that they do so. Telecommunication companies coughed up the private information about their customers when the Bush administration forced them to do so, similar to how they capitulated to the wishes of the BART authorities. And can you blame them? When an armed man demands your wallet, you surrender it. I am not letting wireless cell phone companies off the hook, but simply showing that they tend to violate privacy when ordered to do so.

There are, of course, threats to our privacy that come from advancements of technology and the rapid flow of private information that seems to be exchanged so liberally these days. But like my Apple laptop that is constantly updating itself and plugging viruses, these threats are easily countered through the evolving ebb and flow of the technology sector.

If private technology can occasionally abuse our liberty and privacy, then we must be vigilant in opposing it and finding ways to counter it. This concern for security has already created a market for encryption, anti-spam software and outlets to expose these transgressions.

As I argued for in a previous PolicyMic column concerning the Fourth Amendment and an Indiana Supreme Court decision to abolish the Magna Carta, it is time to stop entrusting our rights and liberties to the whims of government bureaucrats and politicians. 

While private enterprises may occasionally violate our privacy (and most often this happens at the behest of government decree), governments are virtually guaranteed to trample our liberties as the future of technological progress grows. Only the market can provide the proper balance of liberty, security and order that can make this unending progress a peaceful one.

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