The unclear message in telephone data


Reaction to revelations that the U.S. government is secretly collecting data from an estimated 3 billion phone calls a day, as well as from nine major U.S. Internet providers, has been of two general varieties. One has been a shrug, that the same information has long been gathered by Internet companies to enrich their coffers, and that what the government is doing is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks. Those advocates point out that the government isn’t actually listening in to the phone conversations of Americans. They argue that real privacy interests aren’t being threatened, and that the activities are, in any event, subject to both congressional oversight and judicial scrutiny.

Critics are concerned about the extent of the data collection. And they are troubled by the government’s denial that the National Security Agency was conducting data sweeping programs until their existence was revealed by leaks. Those critics believe that the gathering and indefinite storage of information – phone numbers, time and location of calls – is an unacceptable intrusion into the private lives of Americans, and are concerned that congressional and court oversight is inadequate. Reportedly, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have skyrocketed this week.

President Obama tried to calm things down: “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” he told the nation as he defended the data collection programs. “It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

The president is right. There are trade-offs between privacy and security. And different countries react differently to the trade-off choices. For example, Europeans favor more privacy; Israelis stress security. As for Americans, we appear to lean toward tolerating some loss of privacy in favor of heightened security: A Pew survey this week found that 56 percent of Americans approve of the NSA tracking phone records, and 62 percent said it’s more important for the government to investigate possible terrorist incidents even if it intrudes on personal privacy.

What is troubling about this story, however, is an unsettling sense that there is more to come, and that we don’t yet know the extent of the monitoring, listening and watching being conducted in the name of national security. We are getting used to video cameras in public places. But we don’t yet know how intrusive some of the current, ongoing monitoring activity by our government really is. And we don’t want to have to rely on leaked reports to find that out.

So, what appears to be at stake is less the choice between privacy and security, and more the question of whether we have a right to know which of our activities are being watched, recorded, tabulated and catalogued. Add to that the concern that we cannot really make choices as a society if we don’t have sufficient information on which to base those decisions.

Mr. Obama said his administration is resisting a “trust me, we’re doing the right thing. We know who the bad guys are” mind-set. We’d like to believe that.

But we don’t yet have enough information to reach that conclusion.

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