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