Geoffrey Fisher once said, “There is a sacred realm of privacy for every man and woman where he makes his choices and decisions – a realm of his own essential rights and liberties into which the law, generally speaking, must not intrude.” This statement truly sums up the essence and the value of this oft-misunderstood value we refer to as privacy. It is “a realm of … rights and liberties” and as such, we would do well to protect it from the constantly intruding arm of government.
Yet unfortunately, this privacy, so often misused, so often forgotten, is, in the current situation, drastically undervalued.
In order for us to understand the full implications of this, we must begin by gaining an understanding of certain key terms. The first of these, of course, is privacy. The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary provides an excellent definition of privacy that we will use, claiming that privacy is “freedom from unauthorized intrusion.” This definition takes immediate effect, for we understand by this that the individual cannot undervalue his own privacy, for any intrusion that the individual authorizes is clearly not unauthorized intrusion.
The second word to define is “undervalued”, “to value, rate, or estimate below the real worth.” Intrinsic in this definition is the idea that values (such as life, courage, love, property, liberty, and privacy) do in fact have objective worth. Hence, in the statement that privacy is undervalued, it is implied that privacy therefore ought to be valued more highly. Thus, we are not merely arguing that a certain situation exists (i.e. that privacy is undervalued), but also that a certain course of action ought to be pursued (i.e. privacy ought to be valued more highly). These aspects are so closely interrelated that it is impossible to prove the one without proving the other. If privacy is undervalued, then, by definition, it ought to be valued more highly, and in the same way, if privacy ought to be valued more highly, then, by definition, it is undervalued.
But in order to prove either of these points, we need an objective standard that will help us to, first, determine the proper value of privacy, and second, to determine whether privacy ought in fact to be valued more highly. The specific standard that we will incorporate here will be liberty. Again, for clarity, it is important for us to define our terms. We may define liberty as “freedom from arbitrary government.”
We will argue later that the true value of privacy is best measured by the standard of liberty. But before we advance into these arguments, we must first determine that liberty is actually an acceptable standard by an examination of the worth of liberty.
As we examine the value of liberty, we find, first, that liberty is an intrinsic value, for its value does not proceed from anything that it achieves, but rather is found in and of itself. Indeed, so fundamentally valuable is liberty that men throughout history have laid down their very lives in order to secure liberty for themselves and their posterity. Patrick Henry, in perhaps the most famous expression of liberty’s value, claimed, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” The evidence of Patrick Henry and others like him cannot be denied, for, in order to secure the blessings of liberty, they paid the ultimate price, and their testimony will not keep silent.
But one might ask What has liberty to do with privacy? Much indeed! For when some fail to properly value our freedom from intrusion, the door is opened to overt and arbitrary control by any who desire such control. A loss of privacy in essence leads to tyranny.
Consider Hitler’s Germany. After Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933, individuals quickly lost their right to privacy, officials freely examining the correspondence of the people, listening in on telephone conversations, and invading private homes, all without any warrant.
This invasion of privacy enabled Hitler to gain total control over the German people, controlling all that they could read or write, and thus, in effect, controlling their very thoughts. Lack of privacy brought about this terrible tyranny.
And this is not the only occasion that a lack of privacy has brought about such tyranny. In Eastern Europe, millions of people lost all semblance of liberty as Stalin proceeded to make himself absolute ruler of Russia. During his regime, Stalin slaughtered ten to fifty million people, some by starvation, others simply shot. Stalin set ridiculously unattainable production quotas, and any who failed to produce “enough” lost everything they owned. Any who spoke against this terrible regime faced imprisonment, torture, and death.
How did Stalin maintain such a tyrannical hold on Russia? The answer is in his massive network of spies. Secret police, swarmed through Russia, spying on and encouraging others to spy on citizens, looking for any possible signs of rebellion or dislike of Stalin or Stalin’s way. Privacy was virtually nonexistent, and it became impossible to travel anywhere without somebody watching one’s every movement. We see clearly that the only way in which a tyrant can become a true tyrant, with total control and power over the populace is through a total rejection of the privacy of the people.
On the other hand, a protection of privacy brings about greater liberty. When privacy is valued, no man can come and arbitrarily coerce or restrain our choices or actions. Clearly the founding fathers saw this, for throughout the Bill of Rights, they granted protection to the privacy of Americans: the first amendment’s protection of the privacy of beliefs, the third amendment’s protection of the privacy of the home, and the fourth amendment’s protection of the privacy of person and possessions. How true the words of the great patriot James Otis, “A man’s house is his castle.” Only in our privacy, the privacy of our homes, the privacy of our thoughts, the privacy of our persons, the privacy of our beliefs can we find protection for our rights and liberties. When privacy falls, liberty will soon follow.
But consider now what state we have fallen into today. The United States government has rejected the privacy of its citizens as null and now actively monitors its people. Michael McFarland writes, “The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Homeland Security also have many programs to monitor citizens in general, not just those who are under suspicion. These efforts include sifting through media references, tracking chatter on social networks, and monitoring peoples' movements through license plate scanners and video cameras.”
According to the ACLU, “In the wake of 9/11, mass surveillance has become one of the U.S. government’s principal strategies for protecting national security. Over the past decade, the government has asserted sweeping power to conduct dragnet collection and analysis of innocent Americans’ telephone calls and e-mails, web browsing records, financial records, credit reports, and library records. The government has also asserted expansive authority to monitor Americans’ peaceful political and religious activities.” The government, in an attempt to provide for our security, has totally disregarded the privacy of its citizens, throwing out our liberties in the name of security.
But some have argued that this trade is one of necessity, claiming that we must, at times, sacrifice our liberties in order to be secure. Consider the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Sacrificing liberty in order to preserve safety is futile, for in releasing liberty to grasp safety, they are both lost. Dr. Robert Higgs put it brilliantly when he wrote, “placing confidence in the government to function as savior or problem solver does not lead to the peace, prosperity, and safety that people crave. On the contrary, that misplaced confidence ultimately leads to tyranny and diminished security—in Benjamin Franklin’s words, ‘Neither liberty nor safety.’”
Dwight D. Eisenhower makes clear the foolishness of valuing this “safety” over freedom when he says, “If you want total security, go to prison. There you're fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking... is freedom.”
Yet this is exactly what our government seeks to do with us: provide for our safety by sending us to prison. And the means by which it does so is through the destruction of privacy.
According to William Binney, a former official with the National Security Agency, trillions of phone calls, emails and other messages sent by U.S. citizens have been intercepted by the government. In fact, in an interview with Democracy Now, Binney claimed that the government currently possesses copies of almost all emails sent and received in the United States.
The Watson Institute reported, “the FBI’s ‘Joint Terrorism Task Forces’ and the Defense Department’s base ‘protection’ staff have monitored peace groups with absolutely no tie to Al Qaeda, including pacifist Quakers and Catholics at the Thomas More Center in Pennsylvania. Under the guise of monitoring ‘terrorists,’ federal and state agents have also monitored anti-nuclear activists and Pennsylvania residents concerned about the threat unregulated oil shale drilling poses to their water supply.”
Indeed, this surveillance is often undertaken despite laws set up to limit just such monitoring. From the same report from the Watson Institute, “Despite the FISA law, shortly after 9/11 the Bush Administration began monitoring Americans’ communications and conversations without FISA warrants and in violation of FISA’s individualized protections. For four years, the administration publicly claimed it had obtained warrants for all monitoring activities.” The article closed with these ominous words, “Americans have never lived in an environment where their everyday actions—so many of which are conducted electronically—may fall under such potentially intense and far-reaching scrutiny.”
The USA PATRIOT Act is perhaps the most notorious form this surveillance has taken. New Mexico’s Governor Gary Johnson described the Act well when he claimed, “Ten years ago, we learned that the fastest way to pass a bad law is to call it the ‘Patriot Act’ and force Congress to vote on it in the immediate wake of a horrible attack on the United States.”
Among the sweeping privileges granted in this tyrannical act were warrantless searches and continual monitoring. Jonathan Turley writes, “The president may now order warrantless surveillance, including a new capability to force companies and organizations to turn over information on citizens’ finances, communications and associations.” According to John Hockenberry, “the strategy since September 11th has been tap phones first, ask questions later.” This is the cost the government has claimed for our “security”, if security we can call it.
It should come as no surprise that drastic dictatorial powers accompanied this assault on privacy. In their pretence to “protect” us, they have started down the road well paved by the feet of Hitler and Stalin. Administration officials have affirmed the president’s right to order the assassination of any citizen whom he considers allied with terrorists, and this without any trial. The founding fathers fought and died to take just such arbitrary power out of the hands of tyrants. What will we do if the president decides that any political opponents are “abettors of terrorists”? As Ron Paul claimed, “We have established a policy that we can now assassinate American citizens…. Now that is a dictatorship.”
Justice William O. Douglas of the Supreme Court foresaw in 1966 the direction we were heading, declaring, “The privacy and dignity of our citizens are being whittled away by sometimes imperceptible steps. Taken individually, each step may be of little consequence. But when viewed as a whole, there begins to emerge a society quite unlike any we have seen -- a society in which government may intrude into the secret regions of a person's life.”
This is the society in which we find ourselves, a society in which the right to privacy is practically nonexistent. The words of Justice Douglas have been ominously fulfilled. Privacy clearly is undervalued, for the current low valuing of privacy has led to appalling infringement of liberty. The obligation to value privacy more highly is clear, for we find a distinct relationship between privacy and liberty: when one is violated, the other is sure to fall. If, as Ron Paul claimed, “The purpose of government is to protect the secrecy and the privacy of all individuals”, then we must hold our government accountable and hold them to their purpose, to protect our liberty through the preservation of our privacy.
For what price is too great to pay for liberty? “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”