When the first traffic STOP signs went up in the United States in the 1920s, an Illinois court ruled that they violated individual rights. The court had acceded to the position of motorists, who claimed the right to proceed on their journey unimpeded—the risks be damned. The ruling did not stand, but it exemplifies how public opposition to what may later be deemed commonsense safety and security rules is nothing new. That we no longer give a second thought to the government’s right to ask us to stop at intersections shows how public perceptions evolve.
Today, the battle is over the extent to which the U.S. government—in the name of homeland security—should be able to get personal data or otherwise tread on privacy rights. Former Department of Homeland Security official Stewart Baker laments in his book Skating on Stilts how the European Union “Pursuing its own notion of what privacy requires...insisted that the Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP), and only that agency, would have access to [airline] reservation data.” He goes on to note, “The FBI, the CIA, NSA, and the National Counterterrorism Center, even other parts of DHS—all were on the wrong side of the new European-built wall.”
That problem has recently been addressed, but as Joseph Straw writes in “The Prescreening Puzzle” (page 60), it was a contributing factor in the intelligence failures that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board an airplane Christmas Day with plans allegedly to set a bomb off and bring it down.
Baker notes another situation where it’s difficult to find logic in the balance struck between privacy and security. “It now appears, in the wake of the UBS tax evasion scandals, that renowned Swiss bank secrecy laws will be modified to allow the pursuit of tax cheats,” he notes. Yet those same secrecy laws “remain inviolate when the subject of scrutiny is terrorist financing...essentially creating a European safe haven for terrorist finance.” According to the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2009, released last month, this issue remains an ongoing concern.
Another privacy battle rages over the use of full body scanners. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has asked the courts to block their use in airports, saying they capture “naked images of millions of individuals in violation of federal statutes.” EPIC recently obtained records proving that federal courthouses were retaining these images despite government assurances to the contrary, a fact that doesn’t help to assuage public concerns.
Government must be honest about its practices and held to account for abuses. Still, given that people already freely disseminate so much personal data on Web sites—in exchange for which they get more targeted ads but far less protection—it’s arguable that where civil rights advocates are drawing privacy lines today is as foolish as opposing stop signs was nearly a century ago.