02/03/2014 12:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2014

Privacy vs. Security: A False Dichotomy

Click here for the NPR TED Radio Hour segment on privacy and the TEDTalks that inspired this post.

There is really only one argument in support of mass surveillance by the State: Increased security can be bought with reduced privacy.

That claim begs the question: "How much liberty buys how much security?"

It is almost impossible to imagine how two completely different abstractions - security and liberty - could be compared, when idiomatically, we can't even compare apples and oranges. We should be very uneasy that an entire political age has been built on just that comparison.

But, since our leaders insist on making it, and it is the only one they ever make for extinguishing our civil rights, and in particular our privacy, let's run with it ...

Either the math is wrong. Or the morality is wrong. Or both. -- Robin Koerner

To the defenders of the surveillance state, security means "saving American lives". That is why Feinstein and her ilk justify governmental surveillance with statements like, "the NSA's bulk collection of metadata might have prevented 9/11".

That only makes sense as a justification if the mass violation of privacy is of less value than 2996 innocent American lives. Of course, it's not just our privacy that has been sacrificed: our freedom of speech and our right to due process have been sacrificed by the same laws, and with the same justification, that paved the way to systematic and secret violation of privacy. So what the likes of Feinstein are really saying is that the American way of life has less value than 2996 innocent lives.

Moreover, most of the same people in government who advocate sacrificing the American way of life (liberty) to save American lives (security) support the sacrificing of American lives to save the American way of life.

This inconsistency goes beyond the moral: it verges on the mathematical.

To date, the American government has, in the War of on Terror, sacrificed nearly 7000 American lives and somewhere between a hundred thousand and a million non-American lives to protect (we are told) the American way of life, which includes our privacy.

Our way of life, of which our privacy is an important part, cannot simultaneously be worth fewer than the 2996 American lives lost on 9/11 and more than the approximately 7000 American service personnel and hundreds of thousands of innocents we have killed abroad.

Assuming Feinstein and friends are not being deliberately disingenuous, what she must really mean is that the surveillance state, and the War on Terror of which it is a part, would not just have saved 3000 Americans on 9-11, but that they are saving more American lives than - (a) all the Americans we have lost through fighting "the War on Terror", plus
(b) the non-American lives taken by our actions (presumably and somewhat sickeningly weighted by some factor that makes each one worth less than a "saved American"), plus
(c) whatever value we might give to the American way of life, which includes our privacy (measured, for mathematical consistency) in terms of a number of lives.

Indeed, precisely this ability to quantify is assumed when Obama tells us of the need to "balance" or "weigh up" our security against our liberty.

Since no one is arguing that killing innocent foreigners makes us any safer, but our government has killed huge numbers of them, it is apparent that the more closely an innocent non-American life is valued to an innocent American one, the more American lives must be saved by the sacrifice of liberty to reach this so-called balance between liberty and security.

Our leaders keep getting away with this nonsense because, as far as I know, not one politician or journalist has yet asked two obvious questions on which this entire trade-off of security and liberty depends. 1) How many American lives is the American way of life worth, and 2) how many innocent non-American lives have the same value as an innocent American life?

There is only one pair of answers that is mathematically and morally consistent with the Bush/Obama/Feinstein case for eliminating basic civil rights, such as privacy, as part of the War on Terror: the value of a non-American life must be de minimus, and the value of American liberty must be approximately zero.

Either the math is wrong. Or the morality is wrong. Or both.

So much for the variables. What about the logical inconsistency: if liberty must be sacrificed to save American lives, how can sacrificing lives for liberty possibly be justified? If there are mathemagical numbers that can resolve that paradox, let's have them.

Denis Diderot, one of the most famous thinkers of the Enlightenment, rightly remarked, "In order to shake a hypothesis, it is sometimes not necessary to do anything more than push it as far as it will go."

An internally inconsistent hypothesis doesn't need to be set up against a competing one to be shown to be false. It simply collapses under the weight of its own contradiction when examined closely. So let's push the buy-security-with-liberty hypothesis as far as it will go.

And because I believe in competition, I'll offer up my own base-case strategy for preserving American liberty and lives.

It's in two parts, and it's really complicated.

Here goes.

1) Don't give up any liberties. 2) Don't put Americans in harm's way.

Now, I am aware that this kind of extremist politics may not keep all Americans safe in a utopia of liberty: after all, 9-11 happened. But I do know that if you don't give up any of your liberty, then you still have all of your liberty (I'm definitely going to beat Feinstein and Obama on logic) and that making others feel secure does more for one's own security than doing the opposite.

Perhaps I am wrong - and if I am, the NSA will be the people to prove it.

After all, they're the guys with all the data.

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