Similar concerns are being raised in Britain over the government’s plans to keep, for up to six years, the DNA profiles of individuals arrested by the police but not convicted of any crime. Ministers and the police argue that retained DNA evidence has been crucial in solving rapes and other crimes years after they were committed, but opponents say the practice infringes civil liberties and is vulnerable to mistakes or abuse.
Campaigners are also fond of trotting out the statistic that Britain has the highest number of closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras in the world, and the proliferation of threats to privacy has British civil liberties campaigners at their wit’s end. Shami Chakrabarti, head of Liberty (the British equivalent of the ACLU) and someone not given to understatement, claims: “We have lived under one of the most authoritarian ages in living memory.”
A common thread runs through the debates over government snooping, DNA profiling, and CCTV surveillance: How can we reconcile individual freedoms with national security and public safety? It’s an area where political distinctions become blurred on both the left and the right.
The left’s desire for the government to take increasing control over the lives of citizens is hard to fathom when set against its often casual disregard for the law. Leftists regard many acts of criminality — throwing a chair through the window of Starbucks, hurling rocks at police officers, disrupting airports in the name of environmental activism, or hacking into government computer systems — as legitimate acts of protest. And when they aren’t actually breaking the law themselves, they’re busy agitating on behalf of everyone from muggers to terrorists, their misplaced concerns born of the Marxist notion that the world is divided into victims and oppressors.
Conservatives are also split on matters of liberty versus security, but while the inconsistency on the left is a result of the profound intellectual and moral confusion that defines “progressives,” the tension on the right is the result of two laudable but sometimes conflicting aspects of conservative thought. The libertarian impulse comes into conflict with the desire for law and order. There are good arguments on both sides, and it’s hard to reconcile them. It boils down to the popular mistrust of authority versus the principle that the innocent have nothing to fear.
There are good practical arguments against the government storing information and spying on people. In the UK there have been several instances of the government losing personal data on millions of people, while opponents of CCTV cameras claim they’re simply not effective in reducing crime. And as the Fort Hood terror attack shows, there’s little point in a government spying on its citizens if for reasons of politics or political correctness it’s not prepared to act when it obtains incriminating information.