Security vs privacy: RadioLab and the case for the surveillance state

Homeland Security PrecrimeWe all love freedom and the Constitution. But is it really that simple?

I’m a huge fan of a good debate. And by “debate” I don’t mean the sort of ginned-up scream-lie-and-spinfests we have come to associate with the term in the past few decades. No, I mean spirited, intelligent, thoughtful exchanges between parties with honest, good-faith disagreements. Lucky me, I tripped across one today.

My new friend – the lovely Christine – recently turned me onto RadioLab, and I’ve been streaming some of their podcasts while I work out. Today I listened to one that’s as fascinating as it is disturbing. It’s called “Eye in the Sky,” and if you’re plotting any crimes I suggest you give it a few minutes of your time before you pull the trigger, so to speak.

In this episode, the team examines the emerging security technology being developed and deployed by Persistent Surveillance Systems of Dayton, OH. If you’re like me, your radar starts pinging a minute or two in. I think I have been more than clear through the years when it comes to my feelings on privacy and those bent on depriving us of it.

The first few minutes go about the way you’d expect. Then comes the pro-surveillance counterpoint. It’s kinda what you’d expect, only with serious teeth. I encourage you to listen to the whole show, but the segment kicking in at the 14:00 mark is essential.

Principles matter. But an honest, good-faith debate demands that we be honest about the costs, whatever they may be. We can choose to pay the costs if we want, or not, but we’re fools if we pretend that there are none. You’ve heard it said that “freedom isn’t free” – or perhaps “freedom ain’t free” – and that’s very true. But the costs aren’t all related to the “blood of our forefathers.”

PSS technology scares the pants off of me, for reasons that ought to be obvious to anyone who’s ever heard of the NSA. But I’m not going to lie. If someone steals my truck tonight, I’m probably going to be more tolerant of the technology tomorrow than I am today. If someone I love is murdered by a thug cartel lord – and if you listened to the podcast this example should resonate for you – I’m probably going to be tempted to compromise my principles a little to see him behind bars. Go ask the folks of Juarez.

At some level the idea of debating privacy vs surveillance feels like debating whether the sun ought to rise in the east tomorrow. The chances of us derailing further encroachments on our civil liberties are pretty much nonexistent.

Still, it’s good to be informed. And thoughtful.

To the crew at RadioLab, thanks. This is almost enough to restore my faith in journalism.


  • the police or the government are not there to protect you and they are suppose to protect society as a whole, but in reality they are there to protect the rich and powerful to maintain the status quo. i will not give them more power, but i have no say.

    freedom is not free and it is not just the cost of lives. look at the defense budget. because of it, we are making more enemies that will cost us much more money and lives. who hired us to police the world. big brother has no ones interest except himself and that is why we should try an muzzle him. when they convert to electronic money, our great uncle can control every penny you spend and know how you spent it. also he will then be able to lock up your money when ever he feels like. we have changed our police force into a paramilitary organization just in case we need to stop the masses from protesting. there is no friendly neighborhood policeman any more.

    we have changed the meaning of the constitution to suit the governments needs in many ways. for instance, not innocent until proven guilty, to guilty until you prove your innocent. such as taking large sums of money from people. no knock search warrants that have killed over a half a dozen people, they just went to the wrong address. i do not hear anyone complaining about it. criminals are a very small part of society that is why we do not need to house 25% of the population there. although our government tries like the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on guns. they take a small percentage of criminals and make the population pay for their doings. there is a reason for this the rich get richer, they are the ones that control society not any political party, you would have to be naive to think other wise. giving the government more control is not the answer, it gets real scary when your TV says hi to you by name when you walk into the room. this is already happening. where as i am not against everything, i think we need cameras on every officer to control them. why? well from my prospective i see criminals and police with the same sort of personalities, and a lot get that job because they like to bully people. then there is the blue code of protecting their own. when there are riots you will not see the police, it is not safe for them. you can not stop crime and thank the stars it is a small part of the equation. all we are doing is giving up our freedoms to make the governments job of controlling everyone easier.

    the government cannot live within it’s budget now. we are close to a total collapse of the government, no man or government can live on credit for ever, maybe for a while and our while is up. it happened to Rome when they started adding other metals to their coins. printing money up for QE just tried to post pone the inevitable until any other player was in office, but that will make the end much worse. this will be bigger then the depression, the big difference is people are not use to doing anything them selves any more. it is going to get ugly. it does not matter who is in office the damage is done. with the bank runs coming, how muck money do you think the government can print electronically before there is spiraling inflation and a total collapse of the economy. no one will get their money out of the bank, the stores if you have money will be empty. i hope i am wrong, i will be the first to say boy was i an idiot.

    so, while i think everyone having insurance is a good idea, i think being able to pay for it first not putting it on credit is the answer and we are way past being fiscally prudent in the government. everyone has to pay for what they get, governments are not exempt from that. i also believe what i do if i am not hurting others is no ones business. i want my freedom back. i am not right or left but have views that i will try to defend. we are already in a police state and i do not want to give them any more control, or reasons to harass the public, the majority of the people.

    i am not the smartest egg in the carton, but i learned that with hard work i could keep up with those people. my education lies in the sciences and then i went into the mba program. i had to work hard just as everyone should. those that do not work should not be feed what they want and not as much as they want. being retired this QE has hurt me a lot. whether you know it or not QE has devalued the dollar about 27%. it is hard on fixed income but our government decided to take it’s reckless spending out of the retirees pocket. i will not give the government more power if i can help which i probably can’t. government is the most inefficient business there is. it is best served not from the top down but from the bottom up. the government closest to the people it serves , serves best and more efficiently. sorry i am not much of a writer, typer or speller math and logic were my best points. i hope i got my message through the way i intended.

    if you are not doing anything wrong why should you worry? what a bunch of crap to allow the government to take more of your freedom. it is really all about freedom to make your own choices and live with the consequences. there is no one responsible for you except you no matter what the government tells you to get their way.

  • math and logic were art’s best points. how interesting.

    now having said that, he’s actually right about devaluation. The other day I was wondering what inflation really is. Most of us are aware of the CPI and that it tracks inflation. What many don’t know is the way the govt tracks inflation continues to change, mostly as one president after another takes something out of the index to make his stats look better, and the CPI underreports. It’s a non partisan con. There’s another most honest way to measure inflation–look at the price of a Big Mac over time. (Long story, but Big Mac index was developed by the Economist back in 1986 to measure purchasing power parity but has now been adopted and adapted by economists for other purposes.)
    Art’s right–our currency is worth substantially less than it was a decade ago. Of course, that shouldn’t be surprising. If a govt is fighting some very expensive wars and can’t raise taxes, the only lever left is to print more money (not literally. These days it’s done through credit mechanisms.)

    To Sam’s point. Most things are more nuanced than we are prone to think. Reading the Nobel Prize winner Kahnnemann’s (OK, it was economics–not a real Nobel Prize) book on how the brain works. Suffice to say brains just don’t like to keep two opposing ideas in them at the same time. They want to pick A or B and move on to the next decision.

    • not only credit, and it is not printing most of it, it is all electronically done. they are getting real tricky. they are almost forced to keep the interest rate low so the budget balances better. now to keep interest low they buy their own bonds with this new money. not sure of the mix between long and short term, but we have not felt the total repercussions of all the printing yet. i have notice the price of food seems to keep going up but we have hardly any inflation. statistics can be used to prove anything unless you go back and see the data they used to show why it is not correct. now most of the big countries are devaluing their currency. it is like spiraling inflation. we devalue so we can sell our goods for less around the world, next another country devalues and so on and so on. japan, china, and all of them, but the trouble is it is a band-aid on an amputation. it only works for a while. the economics they have been using for a long time has never worked. japan has not come out of the last recession and ching who was is going through what we all have to. the bubbles or over working certain segments of the economy creating prices that are way to high have to devalue and using those values to tell you how great the economy is. by keeping interest rates low our government has inflated the property and stocks. and as in the great depression people are borrowing money to invest in these things to make money. it will not end well. now the government, who i want to stay out of my business, should stay out of the economy it has done a terrible job so far. why continue? people get caught when the prices fall and can not pay their loans, and that just snowballs. like i said the QE has devalued the dollar itself about 27%. now fixed income people are hurt the worst, but everyone is hurt because wages do not keep up with inflation. we need to balance the budget. before they made a law against it, our government was taking money out of social security. now they complain they do not have enough money. go figure, maybe they should have paid back that money by printing it. so, if you are a fool and are not fiscally prudent, like our government, you become a winner because you pay back the borrowed money with money that is worth less. and those that tried and saved get ******. we need to reduce government, not increase it’s control, because it has no control. also, they can let me be free and make my own decisions. prohibition of anything never has worked and never will. it will just put money in pockets of the most evil people in the country. it is like gun control, that is only a registration system for confiscation. they have to know where to go and get the guns. any gun that is used in a crime can already be traced back to the buyer and then forward to the end recipient. it is already illegal for criminals with felony records to own guns or use them. now anal sex is out lawed in a lot of states, so i guess we have none in this country. prohibition never has worked ever! reduce government simplify the laws, a lot of laws are just there because someones religion tells them it is wrong. we need to live the separation of state and religion. i believe you have the right to be any religion you want, but why should i be force to live your righteous life. freedom not more government. it is a big scam the US will protect us it has no responsibility to protect anyone only the population as a hole. to lose your freedom for that is not a good trade. you would think people would figure out it ain’t so. leave us alone to pursue happiness, not what you want me to do. it is very simple. freedom. we just have to learn how to allow it, which we have never learned. yes i will admit i probably am dyslexic and when i was in school there was no such thing. i have to see things in whole pictures and that can take me more time then most. i have a hard time read, and spelling, but i have never ask the government to take care of me. i work hard even now and have less time then i would like. getting old is not for wimps!!! sorry about my proses.

    • ps. our country was great and still is hanging on. what made us that way?? we are great innovators. now why is japan korea, and china all great producers. their governments. they are great at putting their populations in order. uniforms, everyone reacts the same way. it is brain washed into them from their earliest age that it can be done. change and progress come from individuals that think differently, not the same. our country is headed the way of little boxes in a row, all the same, and no innovation.

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