30 Jan 2008

The False Dilemma of Security vs. Privacy

Bruce Schneier has an excellent short essay on the latest fallacy being parroted by the ‘homeland security’ apparatchiks: ‘security versus privacy.’

Security and privacy are not opposite ends of a seesaw; you don’t have to accept less of one to get more of the other. Think of a door lock, a burglar alarm and a tall fence. … The debate isn’t security versus privacy. It’s liberty versus control.

The idea that security and privacy are at either ends of a spectrum, that some tradeoff is always required or a ‘balance’ always struck, is, he argues quite convincingly, completely false. Most good security actually increases privacy, rather than diminishes it.

The problem is conflating ‘security’ with ‘control.’ People who have spent too long in government, or other organizations with strict top-down management styles, apparently think that the only path to security involves giving them control of everything. It’s the worst kind of paranoid micro-management, and it’s directly at odds with democracy, which is not a top-down organization – quite the opposite.

It’s the mindset that imagines that the easiest way to prevent aircraft hijackings is to compile dossiers on every passenger aboard, rather than working to make the planes harder to hijack. It’s the mindset that wants to check for IDs and confiscate shampoo rather than screen for threatening behaviors that match actual terrorist profiles.

The worst part, the biggest irony of it all, is that this ‘security’ doesn’t even work very well. It creates inflexible chains of command, concentrates vulnerable points of failure, and tends to be reactive rather than proactive. It wastes resources and distracts from the real issues. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

However, most people have heard the security/privacy dichotomy so many times that they’ve come to accept it as truth, even if there’s not really anything behind it. It has the ring of truthiness to it. That’s why it’s so dangerous.

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