privacy is not for its own sake

I have often had to explain librarians’ knee-jerk protection of privacy, because it can seem like such a peculiar passion. Is it such a big deal to know who read what? How can that impact identity theft, or anything else important? But it’s not about privacy. It’s about the freedom to read whatever you want without fear of penalty. Privacy is not important in itself, simply as a necessary condition for intellectual freedom.

Julian Sanchez has a great piece in the LA Times making a similar shift in the terms of argument. The battle over warantless wiretapping isn’t about privacy, per se. It’s about having the freedom to dissent, about having a society in which lawful dissent is not penalized or threatened by those in power.

Without meaningful oversight, presidents and intelligence agencies can — and repeatedly have — abused their surveillance authority to spy on political enemies and dissenters.

The original FISA law was passed in 1978 after a thorough congressional investigation headed by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) revealed that for decades, intelligence analysts — and the presidents they served — had spied on the letters and phone conversations of union chiefs, civil rights leaders, journalists, antiwar activists, lobbyists, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices — even Eleanor Roosevelt and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Church Committee reports painstakingly documented how the information obtained was often “collected and disseminated in order to serve the purely political interests of an intelligence agency or the administration, and to influence social policy and political action.” . . .

Your personal phone calls and e-mails may be of limited interest to the spymasters of Langley and Ft. Meade. But if you think an executive branch unchecked by courts won’t turn its “national security” surveillance powers to political ends — well, it would be a first.

I’ve heard from officials, so many times “oh, come on. We don’t care if you’re reading the latest James Patterson.” Of course you don’t. But that’s NOT THE POINT! You’re simply trying to trivialize the issue and appeal to “common sense.” We don’t care about your phone calls. You only need to worry if you’re a terrorist. Or if you’re opposed to the war, or concerned about the environment, or planning to offer sanctuary to undocumented workers in your church. It’s worthwhile to read the Church Committee Report – because it is a perfect predictor of what’s going on today, describing illegal activities uncovered after Watergate that lead up to the FISA laws that officials today are trying to overturn.

Trust us? No, I don’t think so.


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