July 14, 2013

What is more important, privacy or security?

The tradeoff between privacy and security is once again making headlines.

In case you’ve been hibernating, allow me to summarize this story, which pits our personal privacy — nay, our very freedom — against the security needs of the government of the United States of America.

The way I understand the situation is that all of this National Security Agency phone tapping and Internet snooping started with the Bush administration shortly after 9/11 and has continued to the present Obama administration.

The government claims that it is not an infringement of your Fourth Amendment protection against “unreasonable search” because it does not use the use the actual data (your phone conversations and internet communications); instead it captures just the “metadata.”

What, you may ask, is “metadata”? It’s data that describes the original data or information about the information in the call or email and might better be called “meta-information.”

It usually includes the date and time the information was transmitted or, if it was a phone call, the calling number and the number you called.

So although, your phone conversation or email or visit to that racy website is accessible to the government computers, they are not examined unless a “national security” flag is raised.

And what, you may continue to ask, is a “national security” flag? An example of that might be if the phone number or email address matched the phone number of someone on a terrorist list.

Then and only then, according to the government, do the wheels of justice engage. The NSA contacts a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court for permission to access the actual data (in our example, the audio of the phone call) to follow up this lead and begin an investigation. However, critics of the Surveillance Act Court claim that it is merely a “rubber stamp” and too easily grants requests to snoop.

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