|A CONVERSATION WITH...|
July 17, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: Is privacy under attack? Americans increasingly think so, and this growing unease is creating increasing calls for more barriers to keep prying eyes from personal information. But is the right to privacy absolute? In his book, "The Limits of Privacy," Amitai Etzioni argues that is it not. Professor Etzioni is a George Washington University professor. He joins us now. Welcome back to the program.
AMITAI ETZIONI: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
RAY SUAREZ: So where do you draw the line? I think there would be widespread agreement that the right to privacy is not absolute. But I think there would be a lot of difference on where we draw that line.
AMITAI ETZIONI: Maybe a good place to start is where there's a major direct threat to public safety and to public health. Just let me give a very straightforward example. You work in an emergency room and somebody brings in a little child. You said earlier you had a six-month-old daughter. And the child has burn marks from cigarettes on her arms. And x-rays reveal that her bones were broken and healed. We'll presume she was abused at home but we don't know. So we're going to send a social worker to the home to ask a lot of privacy-violating questions. And most of us by law, by ethics would agree that in this case, the well-being of the child takes priority over the privacy of the home.
If you send your child to a child care center, you want to know if the people there have been convicted of molesting children; some of them are. Put your parents into a nursing home. Would you like to know that 14% of people that work for nursing home had a criminal record? So there are many situations like this. One last one: People drive school busses are subject to blood testing. Blood testing contains quite a bit of violation of privacy. They look inside your body, and I even know what you do off work, after-hours. But a court ruled, and I think most of us would agree, if you want to drive a school bus, you have to give something up for the sake of a bus full of children.
RAY SUAREZ: But that idea of the common good, which you return to again and again in your book, there are some people who will support a right the privacy that's so strong that it really puts the right of the individual far ahead of a shared notion, like the common good.
AMITAI ETZIONI: It's true. And in effect I agree, privacy is a very, very important right. Society cannot remain free for long unless well-protected. But no right, even the most sacred right, the right to free speech, is absolute, as you correctly pointed out earlier. So we always ask a question of balance. That's the beauty of the Fourth Amendment. That's why the closing note of my book is that we should go back to the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment says, "there shall be no unreasonable search and seizure. A search, of course, violates your privacy. Why? Because it recognizes on the face of it that there are reasonable searches, those which reflect a major public interest, and, better yet, it provides us a mechanism for what is reasonable and what's unreasonable. You have to go to court. You have to prove to a judge that you have a specific compelling reason in this case to have a look. So I'm in all in favor of the right to privacy, but we have also to allow voice to other concerns, directly security, directly health. One more quick example. The guy who blew up the World Trade Center and who killed a large number of people had in his computer another operation he had ready, which is going to either blow up the United Nations or one of the channels which lead to Manhattan during rush hour. And the question is, should we have a right to break that code it was encrypted and read a message when we had specific reason the believe... I think every reasonable person would say in this case. So the question really is, should we find some very careful criteria that is directly the life of others is at stake, or a large amount of public health. Under those conditions, I think, yes, we need to allow the common good to take priority.
RAY SUAREZ: But don't you need a certain amount of trust implicit in this? When you say "careful criteria," that means people have to trust that these criteria are going to be observed, that the rules are going to be played by, and that people won't run past the limits that have been put on their ability to find out things about you.
AMITAI ETZIONI: I couldn't agree more, but today, that was for me a very interesting finding which I did not anticipate when I started the book, the major danger to privacy in these United States these days does not come from the government and therefore is not dependent on courts and police and search. It comes very clearly from the private sector, from a few profit-making companies who have more data about us than the East German police ever had about the citizens of Communist East Germany.
We need to allow the government very often to protect our medical privacy, to help us protect our financial privacy from these profit-making companies. My book was published on March 1, 1999. On March 7, the front-page story of the "New York Times" was that Microsoft had planted secretly, unbeknownst to us, a window in all our Window programs, which allowed them to see exactly what we're doing and in a sense even what we are thinking. Well, that's a major violation of privacy by a profit-making company. So the balance of power at the moment is a big brother has to protect us from big bucks, as I like to call it.
RAY SUAREZ: But that idea that it's really the corporate sector that we have to worry about, and you say we need government, doesn't it create a problem that there's not a high degree of trust in government either at this moment?
AMITAI ETZIONI: That's true, and people need to make their choices. In effect, one of my colleagues said, in the end it all comes down to who you trust least. Do you trust least the mafia, or do you trust least the FBI? And I say you should trust least these days some of the corporations. You can't have everything, and so if you are not willing to collaborate with the government, how are you going to protect yourself from this double click, from this enormous, enormous data banks which take information from many sources and put them all together and then keep tabs on you.
As we speak, there is no constitutional or federal law protecting your medical privacy; the most intimate information about us is traded on the Internet. And we have no recourse. Our financial information about us is traded. It's not just our shoe size. Bank call in loans, when they discover that one of their clients has cancer or had a stroke and is at bad risk. Employers -- we have 206 cases already -- do not hire people or fire them because they have bad genes. That's where the problem is these days. It's not, as a rule, it still happens, that the police is snooping in the wrong place at the wrong time.
RAY SUAREZ: But technology is moving very quickly, and if you put in rules and these rules are even supported by a lot of the people that you're seeking to enlist in your idea of privacy, how do you make sure that, for instance, if a one-time sample of your hair or your blood is taken, that it really is one time, just used for that time that you've given permission and then its information is discarded?
AMITAI ETZIONI: Well, I grant you, that's a very severe challenge, and again, I'll be quick to admit there are no perfect solutions -- we may have to keep rewriting the laws as technology. But let me add something here. A lot has been written and said recently about the death of privacy, the end of privacy, forget it, it's gone. Much technology these days gives us better protection of privacy than we ever had before. Let me quickly give some examples. Encryption. Encryption allows you to send a message routinely now in many of our computers that cannot be penetrated by anybody. It's much more secure than mail or phone calls ever were. That's a whole new development. When you encrypt files in your computer, they provide you a much better privacy than your cabinet locked with a little lock used to be. So the degree that we look at it as an... arms race .it is a defense. We get a much more accurate picture. There are now many computer programs which allow you to protect your anonymity. I can go on the Internet and download a political track without ever having to show my face or my name. In the old days you had to go to the library and leave some tracks when you loaded down a Communist document or something like this. So it's not at all that technology runs one way.
RAY SUAREZ: In your book, you refer to people as trying to hide information. But don't you find that a lot of people who are privacy advocates wouldn't refer to it as hiding as all. They would say, "this belongs to me. And what's illicit is the attempt to find it out."
AMITAI ETZIONI: Well, in no society is everybody good all the time on their own. So what happens in a village is something called gossip, which we tend to forget. It's by far the most subtle way, less... least governmental way of keeping people better than they would be otherwise. So when I hear that you roughed up your wife last night, then you know, when you come into the public square, we're going to be quite unhappy with you. The alternative is to have a cop on every corner. So some measure of limiting your privacy is essential for all the things we want to happen in the privacy of your home. We do not want you to abuse your child or beat up your wife. We do not want you to make bombs in your basement. For this to occur, we need some information about your private life.
RAY SUAREZ: So that idea of the common good actually allows you to protect more of your privacy?
AMITAI ETZIONI: It allows you to protect other people around you and protect you from abusing them just because you claim that your home is your castle.
RAY SUAREZ: Amitai Etzioni, thanks for being with us.
AMITAI ETZIONI: Thanks for having me.