PJ Media

Safety or Privacy: New Technology Will Make Us Choose

Not content with regulating home-baked cookie sales, the federal government is now attempting to take upon itself the authority to monitor the various locations of the citizenry by using an individual’s cell phone as a tracking mechanism.  As usual, the government is saying this power will help authorities track down bad guys — drug dealers, criminals, and the like.  But there may yet be another reason, even if the government hasn’t realized it.

Researchers at Purdue University have been working on developing a technology that could detect nuclear radiation in cities and metropolitan areas. Theoretically, this technology would work most advantageously if it were placed in mobile phones. The government would therefore be able to use the cellular network as a “grid,” thereby tracing the location of a possible dirty bomb.

Before decrying the excesses of Big Brother, civil libertarians should give this concept some consideration. However legitimate one’s opposition to the “surveillance state,” the thinking person ought to concede three unassailable truths: 1) there are tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of individuals throughout this world who consider it a solemn religious obligation to destroy American cities; 2) these individuals are sincere in their warped convictions and determined to pursue their heinous objective; they cannot be deterred or dissuaded; 3) these individuals will soon have the atomic means to achieve their apocalyptic ends — likely within the decade, certainly within most of our lifetimes.

Martin Shubik, the Yale economist, liked to draw a curve of the number of civilians ten determined men could kill before they were killed themselves. Throughout history, the change in this number is sobering. Crassly put, as time goes on, fewer men have always been able to kill more people. Consequently, it is not fatalistic or paranoid to assume that we will likely one day witness ten men with ten suitcases attempt to vaporize ten of our cities. The intent is there. The technology is there, increasing exponentially. This isn’t a possibility. It’s a probability.

So at face value, Purdue University’s development of this technology is a good thing. “The likely targets of a potential terrorist attack would be big cities with concentrated populations, and a system like this would make it very difficult for someone to go undetected with a radiological dirty bomb in such an area,” said Andrew Longman, the consulting scientist who is helping develop the system. Longman goes on: “The more people are walking around with cell phones … the easier it would be to detect and catch the perpetrator. We are asking the public to push for this.”

If we are to understand this correctly, the choice is: “You can forever prevent nuclear terrorism, you just need to concede to the government all of your privacy and liberty.” This is nonsensical. The free market is not antithetical to our security. There is no need for this tracking system to be involuntarily institutionalized in every phone with every phone company. Somehow, someway, this benign government of ours has even managed to sour the sweet news of a world-changing anti-dirty bomb innovation. Simply amazing.

“The right to be let alone,” Louis D. Brandeis once said, was “the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” In 2010, that’s gone the way of the dinosaur. According to Declan McCullagh, “the Obama administration has argued that warrantless tracking is permitted because Americans enjoy no ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ in their — or at least their cell phones’ — whereabouts.” Ah, yes, no “reasonable expectation.” Ironically, the administration may have a point.  Have we seen or heard any uproar that the federal government is even contemplating such an expansion of its power? Not really.

In Samson v. California (2006), the Supreme Court ruled that prison cells were not subject to Fourth Amendment protections.  Should the feds be allowed to track our locations via cell phones, we are likewise denied those protections against unreasonable search and seizure. In effect, citizens would be put on par with criminals; there would be no discernible difference between the government’s respect for free people and for inmates. Not so, say the feds: “An individual has no Fourth Amendment-protected privacy interest in business records, such as cell-site usage information, that are kept, maintained and used by a cell phone company,” President Obama’s attorney argued.

Doesn’t the administration see the difference between customers making a personal choice to hand over sensitive information to a private entity on the one hand, and the federal government breaching the privacy of the entire population on the other? The former is a tradeoff we do nearly every day. It’s a little troubling, but at least individually avoidable and protected from violations by the judicial system. The latter is government encroachment more apt for an authoritarian police state.

What should citizens make of all this? We should embrace Purdue University’s work, but demand its implementation be under the auspices of the market in a consensual and voluntary manner. Nuclear terrorism is not a fantasy concocted by unhinged minds. While Mr. Obama hosts antiquated Cold War-style nuclear summits, championing “breakthroughs” like Mexico and Canada ridding themselves of small amounts of uranium, the real world remains unfazed and moves forward with its designs.