Freedom vs. Security T's a Relatively New Issue for Americans, and a Big One in This Age of Big Data

By Shribman, David M | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), June 23, 2013 | Go to article overview

Freedom vs. Security T's a Relatively New Issue for Americans, and a Big One in This Age of Big Data


Shribman, David M, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


This is an era when every question seems to have an answer -- and when that answer is as close as your phone, your laptop or your tablet. But these implements, which answer so many of the questions that we did not know we had, also have raised difficult new questions that we now know we cannot avoid.

Many of these critical questions have become part of the national debate in recent days in the wake of disclosures about how the new technology has opened up new avenues of government surveillance. Here are three of the most important questions suddenly dominating American civic life:

What is the balance between freedom and security?

This may seem like one of the eternal questions pondered by the ancients -- you're thinking of freedom and order, an entirely different matter -- but in fact it is a recent issue, raised by terrorism and the spectre of weapons of mass destruction.

Until Sept. 12, 2001, North Americans gave little thought to the clash of freedom and security, because the pressure against freedom came mostly from barriers involving race (American blacks were denied the freedoms whites enjoyed), gender (traditional roles and some laws imposed barriers to women in the classroom, workplace and elsewhere) and religion (dating to the exclusionary impulses of colonial settlements which did not recognize the hypocrisy of religious discrimination by people who traveled to the New World for religious freedom). Security was a targeted issue, not that much of a broad issue, except of course during the Red scares after both world wars.

The modern pressures on freedom come less against social mobility and personal expression than they do on the heretofore widely accepted freedoms of personal mobility and personal communication. In the contemporary world, unfettered access to public venues (the latest victim: sports stadiums) and the ability to communicate without government surveillance (cellphones and computers) are now genuinely at risk.

The combination of the modern means of communication and the nature of modern terrorism raises the question of whether restrictions on the one might help battle the proliferation of the other.

That is the central precept the administration is employing in arguing that its use of cell-phone and computer records is a minimal but justifiable intrusion on what, only weeks ago, was regarded as commonplace commerce and communication. Indeed, the head of the National Security Agency said that these techniques have interrupted "dozens" of terrorist plots.

But even among those who are reliably counted as national- security absolutists -- many on the right and some on the left -- there are grave questions about whether the intrusions are worth the cost.

The price of freedom has been an enduring American question, dating to the 18th century. It was posed for white men of the patrician class in the battle for taxation with representation in 1776, for blacks in the Civil War between 1861 and 1865 and for all mankind in the world war of 1939-1945, when the Axis powers enslaved, and in some cases exterminated, millions.

But now this large question is being applied to small, unremarkable aspects of modern life that have grown out of the wide distribution of the computer and the cell phone. …

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