Brian Answers: The Benevolent NSA

All this week, I’m answering your questions! We’ll start the week off right with this one from Dave Higgins:

If you knew the government would remain benevolent for the remainder of human existence, and have perfect data security, would you object to them surveilling citizens?

This is a great question because it peers to the core of the privacy issue. Why are we upset about the NSA’s domestic surveillance program? Are we just worried about how it could be abused, or is there a more fundamental problem?

Let’s look at it from a few different angles.

First, of course, it would still be unconstitutional, and thus illegal. So I would still object on those grounds. But “illegal” is a much weaker objection than “immoral.” Let’s put the law aside for a moment.

Perpetual benevolence and perfect security suggest that the data collected won’t be misused for corrupt or overzealous purposes. This does, indeed, remove my main objection to the program. My biggest fear over surveillance is that the Executive branch could use its information to quietly blackmail Senators and discredit protesters. If we take that fear away, the picture looks much less grim.

Now, there’s still a question of privacy. I do feel that regardless of anything else, there is a fundamental right to keep personal things secret. We shouldn’t be watched against our will, and if we are, it’s a violation of human dignity.

But then, so is dying in a terrorist attack.

If we assume that the programs won’t be abused, and that they’re at least somewhat effective against terrorism, then I’d suck up my moral and legal concerns. So the short answer is: no, I wouldn’t object, in spite of my misgivings.

But let’s be clear that we’re describing a fantasy world. In the real world of imperfect human beings, the NSA’s insatiable appetite should worry anyone who believes in limited government.

Thanks for the question, Dave!

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3 responses to “Brian Answers: The Benevolent NSA

  1. Pingback: Davetopia

  2. There is a big problem of definition here.
    Benevolence is perfectly lovely until two parties have conflicting interests.
    There is also the very real problem of benevolent incompetence.
    Want to get locked up for ‘your own good’? Or ‘for the protection of others’?

    There is justification for privacy even in the fantasy world.

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