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Experts Debate Privacy and Anti-Terrorism Measures

December 21, 2007 at 6:50 PM EST
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The NewsHour presents excerpts from a debate on privacy and anti-terrorism measures at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, part of an ongoing series of the Center on issues of national importance.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a debate on privacy in the effort against terror. It’s part of an ongoing series on issues of national importance at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

Ray Suarez moderated the privacy discussion, and here’s an excerpt on the collection of personal information by the government.

RAY SUAREZ: We are now able to not only amass, but store vast amounts of personal information on every aspect of people’s lives. We’re able to watch them through much of their work and play day.

We can cross-reference information from various sources and create a profile of almost every individual in the United States that has any commercial relationship with any institution.

Can the public demand proof that this information is only possessed as needed, cannot be stored in perpetuity, and cannot be used for fishing expeditions?

KIM TAIPALE, Center for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology Policy: Well, I think that’s the crux of the problem. Part of what I’m saying is that, because all of this information is available, it’s unreasonable to create some structure where we’re not going to, under the right circumstances, for the appropriate uses, and against the right threats, allow government — government is us — to access that information to prevent those threats from resulting in catastrophic attacks.

And that’s not to fear-monger catastrophic attacks. I mean, one could argue that there’s fear-mongering on the privacy side, where one argues that the slightest intrusion, the innocuous intrusion — there is no system that we can guarantee that there aren’t going to be errors, that there aren’t going to be privacy invasions.

The issue is, can you minimize those in a way that is reasonable and responsible in the context of the threat?

That information is available. And we have a decision as a society: Are we going to use that to our benefit, or are we not? And it seems to me unrealistic to think that you’re just going to ignore that it’s there.

And we need to have, as Marc has suggested, procedures and oversight to make sure that those abuses don’t occur.

But it’s like guns. Guns can create harm, but we don’t deny them to police officers. We allow them to use them, subject to procedures, and if they violate those procedures we sanction the officer and compensate the victim.

JOHN, LORD ALDERDICE, British House of Lords: I think one of the difficulties is that we all can get information overload. And there’s a kind of fantasy around that if we have more and more and more information that means more understanding and more appropriate reactions to things.

We know from the Madrid bombing, for example, that three separate components of the Spanish police were following three separate components of the group that eventually did the bombing, but they weren’t relating properly to each other, not because of laws issues, not because of privacy issues, but because they were only following their own line.

And I think there’s a real question as to whether this notion of massive trawls of information is really a substitute for more thoughtful relationships and ways of working on the security side and cooperating with the population as a whole.

You did say, Kim, a couple of times something about government, and government is us. I think a lot of people don’t really feel that government is us.

And when government demands intrusions into our privacy, it’s very strange that the same governments are more covert in their approaches and more resistant to openness on their part than they are giving an example to the population of what openness and transparency is about.

JIM LEHRER: That Miller Center debate can be seen in its entirety on PBS. Please check your local station listings for more information about that.