Tug of war between privacy and security continues
Posted by sanityinjection on February 17, 2010
Of the many controversial topics in politics, one of the perennial favorites is the continuum between public safety and individual privacy. In other words, how do we protect an individual’s reasonable personal privacy while at the same time giving the government the tools it needs to keep us safe and protect us from criminals and terrorists?
The Founding Fathers considered this question very seriously. They came up with features such as search and seizure restrictions, due process, and the right to bear arms as ways of limiting the government’s power to intrude into citizens’ lives. With the passage of time, technology has vastly changed the landscape of the issue, offering new abilities to criminals, law abiding citizens, and law enforcement alike.
I try to keep an open mind and avoid a rigid ideology when it comes to these questions. For example, consider the recent decision by the TSA to begin randomly swabbing some air passengers’ hands to check for explosive residue. Even the ACLU is saying that if done properly, this is a reasonable security measure that does not constitute an excessive violation of travelers’ privacy; and I am inclined to agree.
But some questions are a bit more complicated, such as the issue of law enforcement’s access to cell phone location data. Many of us may not be consciously aware that whenever we use our cell phones, we are establishing a record of where we are located at that moment which is preserved by our phone service provider. There are good reasons why this should be possible – for example, emergency responders need to be able to locate someone making a 911 call if they cannot give their location. And law enforcement authorities can gain access to this information with a properly executed search warrant.
However, the courts are now being asked to consider whether law enforcement should allowed to access cell phone location information (though not the content of any transmissions) without a warrant. The Obama Administration is arguing that people using cell phones do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” regarding their location when using a cell phone, and therefore no warrant should be necessary. Complicating the issue is the distinction between historical location information, and prospective or real-time location as seen on many television shows such as “24”.
For me, this is a much tougher question. The value of allowing law enforcement to access such information is fairly obvious. But the “expectation of privacy” question is a difficult one once you take the content of the conversation out of the equation. It would be easy to stand on principle and argue that the government has no right to know where a citizen is at any given time unless there is a presumption that laws have broken. But consider: The government knows where you are every time you get on a train or airplane, or make a phone call from a land line. Why should cell phone use be qualitatively different? If the government is actively chasing a terrorist, do we want them to have to get a signed search warrant before they can use cell phone location to find and apprehend him?
I admit to being torn, but I find myself leaning toward the Administration’s position on this. The potential for abuse seems minimal compared to the likely benefits in terms of public safety. But I’m open to being convinced the other way. What do *you* think?