We know we’ve traded away privacy. But for exactly what security?

In Freedom and the Social ContractVint Cerf writes,

The tension we feel between preserving privacy and a desire to be protected from harm feeds the debate about the extent to which we are willing to trade one for the other. Not everyone, nor every culture, will find the same point of equilibrium. Moreover, as technology and society evolve, the equilibrium points may shift. It has been said that “security” is not found in apprehending a guilty party but in preventing the harm from occurring. While this notion can surely be overextended, it can also be understood to justify a certain degree of intelligence gathering in the service of safety and security.

There is some irony in the fact that our privacy is more difficult than ever to preserve, given the advent of smartphones, tablets, laptops, the Web and the Internet, but that the threats against our safety and security use the same infrastructure to achieve nefarious ends. Our discipline, computer science, is deeply involved in the many dimensions of this conundrum and we owe it to our fellow citizens to be thoughtful in response and to contribute to reasoned consideration of the balance our society needs between potential policy extremes.

How can we reason with lack of stuff to reason about?

All we know for sure in this mess is that there is no clear limit to the spying on us, by both business and government, and that we’ve traded our freedom, our privacy, and the whole freaking Fourth Amendment, for… what?

With business we know: better “experiences,” mostly through advertising. It’s silly, but that’s the bubble we’re in right now.

With government, all we know for sure is that we’re being screwed. As long as the upsides are all classified, all we’ll see are leaks about the downsides.

Saying X number of terrorist attacks have been prevented isn’t enough. We need hard evidence, or “reasoned consideration” won’t have much to work with.


  1. Roland’s avatar

    When people are under stress, their focus narrows and the logical part of the brain shuts down. When pilots have trouble with landing gear, they will focus on that and tend to ignore airspeed, altitude, fuel. When poor people are under financial stress, they go to payday lenders. On TV, “if it bleeds, it leads.” This causes stress, even if you tell people crimes against persons & property are way down, which they are. You can’t reason with people who are under stress.

  2. Richard Barrett’s avatar

    You are absolutely right. There needs to be more concrete proof that giving up this much privacy is really for the benefit of the people. There needs to be a stricter limit!

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