Databuse: Digital Privacy and the Mosaic

Brookings Institution, April 1, 2011,

“The question of privacy lies at, or just beneath, the surface of a huge range of contemporary policy disputes. It binds together the American debates over such disparate issues as counter-terrorism and surveillance, online pornography, abortion, and targeted advertising. It captures something deep that a free society necessarily values in our individual relations with the state, with companies, and with one another. And yet we see a strange frustration emerging in our debates over privacy, one in which we fret simultaneously that we have too much of it and too little. This tendency is most pronounced in the counter-terrorism arena, where we routinely both demand—with no apparent irony—both that authorities do a better job of ‘connecting the dots’ and worry about the privacy impact of data-mining and collection programs designed to connect those dots.The New Republic on its cover recently declared 2010 “The Year We Were Exposed” and published an article by Jeffrey Rosen subtitled “Why Privacy Always Loses.” By contrast, in a book published earlier in 2010, former Department of Homeland Security policy chief Stewart Baker described privacy concerns as debilitating counter-terrorism efforts across a range of areas:

even after 9/11, privacy campaigners tried to rebuild the wall [between intelligence and law enforcement] and to keep DHS from using [airline] reservation data effectively. They failed; too much blood had been spilled. But in the fields where disaster has not yet struck—computer security and biotechnology—privacy groups have blocked the government from taking even modest steps to head off danger.

Both of these theses cannot be true. Privacy cannot at once be always losing—a value so at risk that it requires, for so Rosen contends, “a genuinely independent [government] institution” dedicated to its protection—and be simultaneously impeding the government from taking even “modest steps” to prevent catastrophes.

To read the full paper, click here.

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