Liberty vs. Security

Our society has been entering uncharted waters for some time now without most of the decision-makers understanding the ramification of what they are discussing. Many governments of the world have required all cell phone providers to give them a link to the entire flow of conversations within their country. Civil libertarians have screamed, but the governments have mostly gotten their way. Phone companies either give in or go out of business in that market. So they give in. These governments also want to be able to identify all posters on Facebook and other social media, but have met with less success. Facebook doesn't neet to have a presence in India.

In the US, civil libertarians were quite happy to have defeated SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and are attempting to do the same with CISPA (Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act). They are using the same intellectual arguments, but are going to have a much harder time gaining traction. In the case of SOPA, the government was aligned with an unpopular industry (the recording/entertainment industry). No one was able to make the case that we needed to trade our civil liberties for the sake of an arrogant industry.

With CISPA, the game has changed. The government doesn't want the ability to monitor Internet communications to protect an industry, but to protect US civilian lives. There can be no question that if we trade our civil liberties to allow the government to eavesdrop on Internet communication, we will be safer from terrorist attack. The issue quickly becomes: "How many lives are we willing to risk to save our civil liberties?"

Once the issue is stated in its unadorned simplicity, three things become clear:

  1. We don't know how to create civil protection on the Internet. Wiretap laws did a passably decent job of balancing civil protections in one-on-one conversations, but Internet conversation is simultaneously one-on-many and many-on-one. Analogies to wiretap laws break down at a fundamental level and we have no paradigm to replace them.
  2. After 9/11 no nation, especially the US, wants to be a victim of a similar attack. The images are simply too frightful to contemplate. No government official in the security arena will willingly risk having this happen on his watch. Issues of civil liberties have no impact on the way security personnel look at the options. They simply cannot understand why anyone would want to make things easier for the terrorists.
  3. The people most capable of threading their way through the difficult issues surrounding security and liberty have abdicated their responsibility. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and other technologically savvy civil liberty groups have made it their business to be critics, not reformers. They oppose, but do not propose. A quick survey of the EFF website on CISPA shows the depth of the problem. It's clear they think CISPA is bad, but offer zero alternatives. The EFF is composed of brilliant computer experts, who have successfully taken on difficult intellectual issues and were instrumental in the defeat of SOPA. But take a look at their website. They have successfully defended wrongfully accused cyber-criminals and successfully opposed a multitude of legislation. But there is not one proposal for how to successfully balance Internet freedoms with security needs.

If those with a deep understanding of the social networking character of the Internet continue to be intellectual obstructionists, no matter how noble their individual obstructions are, they will have failed to protect our basic liberties. The laws to protect us will be made by middle-aged or older Internet-illiterates in Congress who have limited ability to understand current Internet issues other than by metaphor to old precepts they learned in college many years ago. They don't have the intellectual tools to create responsible laws, while the security apparatus is clammoring for more and better tools to compat terrorism. Like it or not, we will get laws designed to protect us.

The civil libertarians need to understand two things: (1) The people proposing these new laws aren't evil. They have been charged with keeping all of us as safe as possible and are attempting to do so in a responsible manner. And (2), the public put up a massive fight against SOPA, but the public is fickle. As soon as the issue bores them, there will be no massive opposition to the next proposal.

If we have safety but no liberty, we have become as evil as the enemy we are fighting. If we have liberty but no safety we risk massive deaths. All decisions made in this arena will involve a trade-off between security and liberty. With cooperation, the trade-offs can be minimized. If we continue to have one side make endless proposals and the other side be equally negative against all proposals, we will end up with whatever proposal ends up in Congress when both sides have run out of gas.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the US has been the most successful nation on earth at understanding the ramifications of new technologies and making them work well for the benefit of society while minimizing negative impacts. We invented the Internet. Hopefully, we can continue to be leaders as we move from the industrial age to the information age. Historically, dominant societies have not been too successful at migrating from one age to another. We face a difficult challenge.

April 24, 2012