Michael Wilson on Wed, 20 Feb 2002 09:42:52 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> The problem with privacy advocates

As an employee of one of the "protectors" mentioned by Brin, I feel
compelled to respond to a few of his charges. Although I don't claim to
speak for the organization, in my experience the issues Brin raises are
of daily concern to the ACLU ? one of the most audible voices in the
current debate.

[PF: We're five months out from Sept. 11. What's changed in regard
tosecurity and privacy in the U.S.?
BRIN: Panic, but not as much as some people feared. In fact, the new
powers of sight demanded and received by the FBI aren't all that awful.
What bugs me terribly is that there have been no accompanying and
countervailing powers of oversight, enabling citizen watchdog groups to
observe how these new powers of vision are used. That second half of the
deal was never offered to us. Nor did most of our protectors in the
civil liberties community even ask.]

To a sci-fi author capable of imagining extreme dystopic scenarios, the
Patriot Act may appear to demand relatively benign compromises (this
view is echoed by many on the right) but the ACLU has argued otherwise:
As for oversight, the lack of it has always been the central issue
underlying any privacy invasion, but we have addressed this problem
directly in light of present circumstances: http://www.aclu.org/news/2002/n012402a.html

[PF: What concerns you more: government surveillance trampling on civil
liberties, or government's inability to prevent terrorist attacks?
BRIN: The question itself is what concerns me most. All across the
airwaves we see security mavens demanding tighter restrictions on daily
life "for our children's safety," while civil libertarians preach that
we should accept risk and danger as a price for avoiding "Big Brother"
and protecting freedom for our descendants. In fact, both sides are
foisting a poisonous notion on us for their own self-interest. Both
groups assume a fundamental trade-off between safety and freedom, and
derive economic benefit from the fact that we swallow this awful notion.
But is such a trade-off real? I can tell you that I refuse to even let
it be a basis for discussion! Nobody tells me that I must choose between
safety for my children and their freedom. It's a non-starter. Can we
have both safety and freedom? The evidence can be seen all around us. We
are - even after 9/11 - toweringly safer and freer than any other people
in history. The two go together. All it takes is breaking the stupid
notion of dichotomies and trade-offs.]

This debate was precisely the one the ACLU wished to avoid when we
launched our campaign in response to the post-911 security measures:
just type the words "safe and free" into Google. Although this slogan
might remind one of an advertisement for maxi-pads or adult diapers, it
does serve to illustrate the point that the civil libertarians are
preaching more than the acceptance of "risk and danger".
Brin's charges of elitism and narrow-minded adherence to orthodoxy may
be appropriate criticism of any entrenched advocacy group. However, in
characterizing the current field of privacy debate so one-dimensionally,
Brin betrays an unfounded arrogance as well as clear ignorance.

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