Terror and Security


The quarrel between Apple and the federal government over access to the smart phone of the San Bernardino terrorist shooters highlights the contest between the right to privacy and the need for national security.  At the same time that the government has unprecedented power to electronically snoop into our lives, the individual has new ways to thwart that intrusion, leading to the current confrontation between two giants of information, a global corporation and a powerful national government.

In my own mind there is considerable skepticism that the cell phones in question contain information which federal investigators have not already figured out by other means, given that even the most devious villains have their limits—perhaps they have even greater limits than the average citizen, because of their obsessive-compulsive, tunnel-vision focus on their “mission.”  But be that as it may, in this election year, as voters we will be making a choice about what we value more, privacy or security.

Certainly we are hearing a great deal from the potential Republican candidates about terrorism, national security, boots on the ground, etc., as well as about the perceived threat of illegal immigrants, who might after all include terrorists slipping into the country under the guise of refugees, especially if they’re Muslims.  The Democratic hopefuls also talk about security and terrorism, though they spend more time talking about the economy and the financial system.  But clearly, what to do about terrorism is on everyone’s mind.

Perhaps it would be well to consider history.  Not so long ago, the federal government engaged in domestic spying to thwart the communist threat, with “communist threat” being rather broadly defined.  The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover spied on Dr. King and many others, including the Kennedys (who could hardly be considered communists), resorting to illegal wiretapping, subversion of vulnerable insiders as informants, and other noxious tactics.  Since in fact communism was never all that serious a threat to the United States, one has to wonder if all that surveillance was engaged in for its own sake—it could be done, so it was done.

Great harm came from our obsession with the supposed threat of communism: the Vietnam War, for one, and our incessant interference in the affairs of other (sovereign) countries.  Whatever the real or imagined threat posed by Allende, for example, Pinochet was hardly an appropriate alternative.  Likewise, the invasion of Iraq and toppling of Hussein made matters in the Middle East far worse than they were before (and we might mention the disaster that befell the people of Libya after the fall of Qaddafi).  Great harm can come from our obsession with terrorism.  The greatest harm could be to ourselves, as we gradually and imperceptibly become accustomed to being perpetually watched, and as we adjust our behaviors to that environment.  Even our most private moments will seem less than truly private.

Caveat:  There is some irony in a giant technology/information corporation such as Apple (or Google, or Facebook, et al.) taking a stance against the federal government’s collection of our personal “data,” given that the coin of the tech realm is the collection of data from billions of users worldwide.  We are assured this is for our benefit, but we simply do not know what information is being gathered and stored, and we have little idea, beyond those suspiciously specific advertisements popping up on our screens and in our inboxes, what is being done with that information and by whom.  Never before have individuals been so vulnerable to both corporate and governmental, legal and illegal, hacking as we are today, nor, as users of social media, so complicit in that hacking.  It looks like we’re all Winston Smith.

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