Monday, July 8, 2013

Privacy, Security, and Olmstead

I've been reading articles on privacy for a while and I stumbled upon these wise words:
But [since the writing of the US Constitution] "time works changes, brings into existence new conditions and purposes." Subtler and more far-reaching means of invading privacy have become available to the Government. Discovery and invention have made it possible for the Government, by means far more effective than stretching upon the rack, to obtain disclosure in court of what is whispered in the closet.
Moreover, "in the application of a constitution, our contemplation cannot be only of what has, been but of what may be." The progress of science in furnishing the Government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wiretapping. Ways may someday be developed by which the Government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose to a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home.
Justice Brandeis
Now, that seems to be very contemporary given the recent Snowden disclosures about the US NSA.  But it was really written 85 years ago by Justice Brandeis of the US Supreme Court in, Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 473 (1928).


Yes, I'm a firm believer in these two seemingly contradictory thoughts:

  1. People have a right to expect a certain level of anonymity or privacy; to go about their lives without unreasonable intrusion.   
  2. The government has a responsibility to keep it's citizens safe in much the same way as parents have a duty to keep their children safe. 
I guess it boils down to where is the line...that there are times that for the protection of the citizens and enforcement of the laws, the government, needs to be able to invade that privacy.  I'm not always sure how to balance it, but even Justice Brandeis was concerned.  And he couldn't have ever imagined anything like the power of the internet.

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