When Edward Snowden leaked massive troves of information about the National Security Agency's collection of electronic information, he started a debate over the tradeoffs between security and privacy. At least that's how President Obama framed it, arguing, “we have to make some important decisions about how to protect ourselves and sustain our leadership in the world, while upholding the civil liberties and privacy protections that our ideals and our Constitution require.”
Unfortunately, the security vs. privacy debate is largely over. As cybertechnologies pervaded our daily lives, we surrendered privacy, usually voluntarily. Consequently, framing the decisions before us as a contest between privacy and security is misguided; privacy died with the information age.
Information and communication technologies make life better. They improved economic productivity, efficiency, and economic growth. More personally, information digitization created opportunities to grow, relate to others, and generally realize one’s creative potential. Connected to the Internet, we create, post, and retrieve vast amounts of data, almost all of which is in the hands of third parties.
These benefits come at a price. In order for the applications we use to improve their performance and offer us ever better services, they require information about us. We give it to them. Facebook's 1 billion active users, for example, share roughly 5 billion items a day, not counting the data Facebook collects about them.
This is not to single Google out for praise or condemnation. Its policy is a standard for the industry. Most companies use that information to make our lives better. Surrendering data enables us to better exploit the Internet. When amalgamated, doctors can track public health risks, improve medical research, promote energy efficiency and more. Unsurprisingly, our adversaries use the technology too.
Not very long ago we considered all this information personal. But, as soon as we voluntarily shared it with others, the information stopped being truly private. Our behavior changed, but our expectations did not. So, when Snowden announced that “A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves — an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought,” he was right. But the NSA had nothing to do with it.
There are, of course, legitimate reasons to constrain the government’s data collection activities. The ongoing IRS scandal, for example, raises concerns about the concentration and abuse of power. We also simply may not want the government to know things that we readily share with multinational corporations; double standards are unexceptional in policymaking. But, the issue is not a tradeoff between security and privacy. Rather, it is a question of how much power we want to entrust to the government as it meets its obligation to provide for the common defense compared to the information we freely share with multinational corporations. That is a debate worth having, not the overcome-by-events argument Snowden claimed he wanted to start.Eric Sterner is a fellow at the George C. Marshall Institute. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.