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Could Data Security and Privacy Provisions Define Political Division in the Coming Century?

06/12/2013 11:45 am ET | Updated Aug 12, 2013

For over 150 years, the Democrats and the Republicans have been the two main competitors in the duopoly known as American politics. Upstart movements like the Bull Moose Party and the Dixiecrats have nipped at the edges of the political spectrum, and have even fielded candidates who went on to win electoral votes in presidential contests, yet the White House, Congress, and the vast majority of seats in state and city legislative chambers have been filled by politicians aligned with the respective main parties of the left and the right.

But as we know from our more distant past, political alignments change over time, and if parties or political movements find themselves unable or unwilling to morph in step, they can shrink into obscurity. (If you don't believe me, try calling your local branch of the Whig Party.)

I have no doubt that race, religion, and the role of government will continue to impact our politics, just as they have since America's founding, but I believe that something else could emerge as the source of political cleavage in coming years - the tension between privacy and security in the era of big data. One might argue that something as trivial as security settings on social media sites hardly seems weighty, juxtaposed against historical debates over slavery and suffrage, but the discussion of this and other topics pertaining to our present communication privileges could upend old alliances and reshape our political landscape.

Each day, we generate massive amounts of quantifiable and identifiable information that can be collected and analyzed at an astounding speed by hospitals, corporations, and governments. Often, the use of this aggregated knowledge is for relatively pedestrian purposes like advertising (I see you, Facebook), and in some cases, it even leads to very positive outcomes like the discovery of personalized medicines and the development of improved disaster management practices. However, the ability to access this information and use it for purposes that are questionably legal according to domestic and international statutes has been made vividly clear by cases like the phone-hacking scandal at the News Corporation's British operations, and, most recently, Edward Snowden's disclosure of classified information from the National Security Agency. These instances and others have exposed a widening gap between two camps whose memberships cut across established political lines.

On the one hand, you have those who believe that security - of a corporation's protected material, a laboratory's research, or a nation's defense strategy - is such an important objective that it trumps what they view as antiquated norms about privacy controls. The security side could include an interesting mix of people. Obviously, such a group would attract support from Americans who are extremely fearful of terrorist threats, even when those to their communities are relatively low. I am thinking of the sort of people who, when quizzed, knew the colors of the respective terror alerts issued by the Bush Administration, but I am also thinking of politicians in both parties who fear the electoral consequences of appearing soft on terrorism. This camp might also draw the attention of scientific researchers and university administrators who, fearful of espionage and patent infringement, want stronger safeguards to secure their rights to data-driven discoveries and the royalties that may stem from them. It could also attract media and marketing executives, who want readily-accessible information on the demographics of their consumers to get a competitive edge, and the cohorts of statistical experts and professional data miners who stand ready to benefit from this shift. Finally, the coalition might include Americans who support a leaner, less troop-intensive defense strategy, one built more on cyber security, high-tech surveillance, and data control than deployments of soldiers and expensive war craft. Ultimately, this mix of white-collar and blue-collar households might pull most heavily from the political center, with a mix of moderate Democrats and Republicans as well as a smattering of third-party supporters with causes as diverse as curbing Pentagon spending and profiling perceived threats to national security. It might also, ironically, skew younger, attracting urban Millennials who, frightened by memories of the terror incidents - Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Boston, and, of course, 9/11 - that occurred in cities during their formative years, feel comfortable with sharing details and snapshots of their lives on an ever-expanding list of Internet platforms.

The second group could include those who argue that privacy - of an individual, of a social group, or of a constituency - far outweighs purported security objectives. This would attract strong support from Constitutional rights advocates, troubled by the Patriot Act in its earliest form and alarmed at the scope of media collected clandestinely by the government. The camp might include small or isolated ethnic populations who wish to opt out of inclusion in electronic medical recordkeeping, worrying that metadata studies of their genomes or case histories could lead to discrimination by insurance companies and employers. It could include religious fundamentalists who see the increased assignment of identification codes as a harbinger of the world's destruction, as well an assortment of carnival barkers and talk-radio profiteers willing to shill such ideas for personal gain. It might also include otherwise apolitical persons who reasonably chafe at the idea that their most personal secrets and intimate relationships could be exposed by unscrupulous parties with unfettered access to their communications and data. Finally, it could include programmers and software developers who worry that mandated disclosures of site visits and app usage by patrons could result in reputational risk. This mix might pull from the far left as well as the libertarian right, with an assortment of disaffected centrists joining in as well. Unlike the first camp, it might skew older, populated by a larger portion of Americans who are shaped by memories of the Church Committee and recollections of a time when e-mails, IMs, and tweets could not be sent, let alone traced.

Inevitably, names would land on these two groups, if only to make Twitter tagging and headline penning easier for bloggers. I have no idea what labels will emerge, but I can imagine the privacy party derisively referring to the security camp as the "Seccies," and the security advocates responding in kind by saying that members of the privacy camp, or "Privies", have their heads stuck in the sand on issues like national defense.

This realignment could lead to the emergence of viable third or fourth parties that contend with the Democrats and Republicans. It might also, unintentionally, lead to a thawing of increasingly frosty relations between left and right in political decision-making, as deal-making around important questions on Internet security could yield a softening of obdurate attitudes on other subjects, though I might be getting ahead of myself. Most importantly, this debate might force a re-think within our country on the relative roles of protection and privacy provisions in a world where the boundary between the public and the personal spheres of our lives has become increasingly ill-defined.