Freedom v. Security, Tech-Style

Since 9/11, America has been embroiled in a debate about whether privacy and other related freedoms should be sacrificed at the expense of national security. From the PATRIOT Act to the sometimes heavy-handed approach of the TSA, reasonable voices have differed on just what the correct balance between these important interests is. That the relative worths of security and privacy are weighed in a constant struggle is unquestionable, only whether or not one feels that the scales are tipped in an appropriate direction on any particular topic is still up for debate.

Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident or contemporary than in the technology world. Though it was coincidental that e-banking, e-commerce and e-communication came into their own around the same time as the tragedies of 9/11, the freedom/safety debate has been inextricably linked to the tech world ever since. Some recent stories have ensured that this ongoing issue has remained firmly in the public consciousness:

The Department of Homeland Security has declared its intent to more closely monitor social networking sites for signs of civil unrest in the wake of the events in the Middle East earlier this year. According to Department Undersecretary Caryn Wagner "We're still trying to figure out how you use things like Twitter as a source. How do you establish trends and how do you then capture that in an intelligence product?"

While not necessarily related to the internet, a story out of Florida merits inclusion here due to its strong link to the privacy/public security debate in the technological context. In a case that has made its way to the Supreme Court, Florida police have made a habit of installing GPS transmitters without first obtaining warrants. While this has assisted in crime fighting efforts, detractors have noted a 'Minority Report' feeling surrounding some actions. According to Pembroke Pines Police Captain Sean Hemingway, "GPS is one of the technologies that are helping to move us forward. You can use it to take someone down in an area they don't belong, like say a gated community. Or you can watch where they go and build a case for loitering and prowling, to prevent a burglary."

In a related story, most of our readers will by now be familiar with social networking technology that allows friends to track each other via smartphones. While this has not been utilized by agents of the state to the best of our knowledge, it would seem that such a use of technology by police officials would ultimately fall under the same rules, at least as long as users intend data to remain private. However, it wouldn't be shocking to see that very debate make it to the SCOTUS on its own at a future date.

While using technology to impair military defenses in other countries might not directly impact the general US populace, many observers are watching the military hierarchy wearily for signs of what direction policy might turn with respect to cyber warfare. Among concerns include the idea that the same technologies that could be used against foreign powers could be used against the US by enemies, or even against citizens by their own government, in the future. There are also related, broader concerns related to the ongoing conversation regarding who should control the internet.

While readers might think that the idea that the military using cyber warfare against the US population is alarmist, we would remind them that kill-switch legislation is never far from debate in the halls of congress. Like other stories in this post, reasonable minds can and do differ over the relative merits of the government being able to shut down parts of the internet under certain circumstances. However, whatever side one comes out on it is undoubtable that some in the government seek and have sought this very power.

Finally, the internet has made it easier for music and video users to obtain content without paying. While most people would agree (even if grudgingly) with courts that this is an abuse of copyright law, and there could be security issues with regards to foreign piracy, privacy and internet freedom advocates are nonetheless speaking out against potential legislation that could curtail piracy activities if doing so would come at the expense of legal uses.

All of these stories have something in common; they are situations where the use of technology has created concerns in the balance between various freedoms and security. However, there are differences as well. Subjects as varied as local police work, warfare and copyright law are implicated. Therefore, like so many other areas of law impacted by the incessant progress of technology, it is not likely that the debates described herein is likely to be settled any time soon. However, it is undeniable that despite the low probability of closure in the near future, much remains at stake.

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