How much privacy?

Although this may sound odd coming from a writer and blogger, words are cheap. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing if we consider all the times we’ve heard people vent about what they’d like to do – or what they plan to do – to someone who’s just upset them. Think about what our society would be like if every threat of death, mayhem, or injury were carried through. So, while we give some weight to a person’s words, we care more about their actions – people can say anything, but what do they actually do?

But even actions aren’t the full measure of a person because there are so many times we have to try to peer inside a person’s heart and their head to really take their measure. I used to work with a man who had killed over 100 times – as a sniper in Vietnam. I’m not sure if he regretted his actions during the war – it’s something he never talked about. But I worked closely with him for years and I am sure that he was a moral man, just as I’m sure he would never have hurt a person just for the hell of it, or just because they caused him problems. He did what we expect all of our frontline troops to do – he killed the enemy – and as long as that was where it ended then we can judge him a good soldier and a good man. So actions matter, but before we can really judge someone we need also to look at the reasons behind their deeds (and just to be clear – some actions are so heinous that they simply cannot be justified). This is one of the reasons why we have so many “flavors” in our legal system – to differentiate between shooting someone in cold blood, in self-defense, in defense of another, accidentally, and so forth. In each case the result is the same, but the underlying motive and rationale is what helps us to distinguish between the hero, the madman, and the murderer.

So let’s think about something a tad more prosaic, but still worth considering – matters of security, privilege, privacy, and secrecy – and see what a difference a person’s intent can make. Or, to put it more directly, let’s think about tax returns, governmental decision-making, and national security.

Let’s start with an easy one – privacy. Privacy is one of our constitutional rights and it’s enshrined into innumerable laws. You can’t open my mail, but you can read a postcard sent to me – which is probably why so few of us write love letters (or “Dear John” letters) on postcards. Similarly, my medical records are private, I have passwords for my e-mail accounts, and I only give my social security number to people (or organizations) I trust. Privacy is a fundamental aspect of our society – there are all things that we do or that we know that we don’t want to have in the public domain.  Perhaps we can say that privacy should be an expectation – up to a point.

That point is hard to define, though. One test might be that the right to privacy starts to erode when a person’s actions start to require explanation or when they begin to have a wider impact on society. If I shoot somebody then I had better be able to explain why – my claims to privacy (at least as related to the shooting) don’t hold water. Society needs to know why I took a shot, if only so that society can figure out what to do with me. If I claim that I was suffering from delusions or a mental breakdown then I need to sacrifice the privacy of my medical records so that society can judge whether I should be treated or punished. Similarly, if I claim I was acting at the behest of someone else then my right to privacy in my e-mail, snail mail, and telephone conversations vanishes. When I take actions that impact society I should expect that society will want to know more about me, including information that I might not want to share.

Of course a person doesn’t have to commit a crime in order to affect society. When I was asked to serve on a committee on depleted uranium I had to agree to a background investigation. And we are all familiar with the amount of scrutiny our politicians undergo, including a huge amount of prying into matters formerly held to be private in their lives (past and present, personal and professional), their medical histories, and their finances. This is expected and (for the most part) appropriate – a person elected to office has the ability to have a profound impact on society, and the higher the office, the more potentially profound that impact. Society has as much right to demand to know about its leaders as it does to know about its criminals – something that should be understood by anyone running for any office.

The right to privacy – the need for privacy – isn’t limited to people; companies and nations have these same needs, and for many of the same reasons. I don’t give out my social security number, for example, because I don’t want people to steal my identity and I don’t tell people the weak points of my home security system so that I can keep my valuables secured. Similarly, it’s reasonable for nations to hold closely information that might put them at risk – this is one reason, for example, that we insist on security clearances for so many in the military, in the defense industry, and in government. Whether it’s how to make weapons of mass destruction, the exact combat capabilities of our most advanced planes and warships, or the deliberations deep inside our government there are some bits of information that simply must be kept out of general circulation.

The problem is that it is so easy to justify keeping something out of the public eye – whether it’s personal information, governmental information, or state secrets – and it is so very difficult to always understand the intention of those who are locking away this information. How do we – society – know when the need for privacy is legitimate and when it is not? How can we know what is in the hearts and in the heads of those who are trying to maintain this privacy? And when does the desire for privacy cross the line into secrecy – and when does the desire for secrecy become pathological?

Some cases are pretty straight-forward. Richard Nixon invoked executive privilege to try to hide his crimes so that he could avoid personal and professional embarrassment and so that he could stay in power. Bill Clinton tried to keep his indiscretions secret as well, also to avoid embarrassment and censure. What they did was wrong and their desire to hide it is natural – nobody wants to get in trouble or to be embarrassed.

Of course we’ve seen this same thing come up very recently, and it’s probably best to say that the jury is still out (metaphorically) on the matter. Mitt Romney’s tax returns, for example – is he insisting on a reasonable privacy in his personal financial affairs, or is he being secretive about a potentially embarrassing matter to try to win the presidency? And, in either case, does it matter for a person who’s trying to become the most powerful man in the world – does society have a right to this information from its hopeful future leader? I honestly don’t know if Romney is being private or secretive and I honestly don’t care what his tax returns say (as long as he’s not broken any laws). But a lot of the public (and the media) do care, which is why it’s such a big issue.

And of course we see the same thing in the current administration as well (to be non-partisan about the matter!) – with the White House’s invoking Executive Privilege in the Fast and Furious scandal (for those who have been living in a cave recently, this is the federal program that sold guns they suspected would end up in the hands of Mexican drug gangs in order to see if the guns would end up in the hands of Mexican drug gangs). Is the administration invoking executive privilege in order to encourage free and open discussions within government (which is recognized as being vitally important), or is it to avoid embarrassing revelations of ineptitude in an election year?

Note that in both of these cases the outcome is identical – information is being withheld from society – but the motives in each case make all the difference in how we view the incidents and those involved in them. A principled stand is admirable; a craven desire to avoid embarrassment is not.

Whether we’re talking about state secrets, military secrets, or personal secrets the easiest thing in the world is to simply clam up and refuse to release any information – the underlying assumption being “what they don’t know can’t hurt me.” But this is the logic I learned from my classmates in the third grade – I’d like to think that our government and our leaders have advanced to a more sophisticated and nuanced view of information.

I would suggest a test that can be applied every time someone invokes privacy, secrecy, or privilege – to ask them what would really happen if the information they are husbanding were to become known and how many would be affected by its release. The higher the stakes, the more important it is to keep a secret. Giving away the plans for miniaturized nuclear weapons can potentially affect tens or hundreds of millions of lives – it seems a good idea to keep those plans locked away. Giving away Romney’s tax secrets is somewhat less portentous – society might have a legitimate interest in knowing more about the man who wants to be our next leader, but not many people would be harmed no matter what they were to reveal. Governmental discussions fall somewhere in between – although I’d suggest that we might be better served trying to learn from our mistakes (including mistaken decision-making processes) than trying to hide them away. And when it gets down to the really mundane – my social security number for example, or where I hide the spare key to my apartment – I’m pretty sure that I’m not important enough to society for these bits of information to matter, so perhaps I can be allowed to retain this modicum of privacy.

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