Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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David Shribman

Freedom vs. security: A big issue in age of big data

This is an era when every question seems to have an answer — and when that answer is as close as your smart phone, your laptop computer, or your tablet. But these implements, which answer so many of the questions that we did not know we had, also have raised difficult new questions that we know we cannot avoid.

Many of these critical questions have become part of the national debate in recent days in the wake of disclosures about how technology has opened up avenues of government surveillance. Here are three questions suddenly dominating American civic life:

What is the balance between freedom and security?

This may seem like one of the eternal questions pondered by the ancients, but it is a recent issue, raised by terrorism and the specter of weapons of mass destruction.

The combination of the modern means of communication and the nature of modern terrorism raises the question of whether restrictions on the one might help battle the proliferation of the other.

That is the precept the Obama Administration is employing in arguing that its use of cell phone and computer records is a justifiable intrusion on what, weeks ago, was regarded as common communication. The head of the National Security Administration said that these techniques have interrupted dozens of terrorist plots.

The price of freedom has been an enduring American question. But now this large question is applied to small, unremarkable aspects of modern life that have grown out of the wide distribution of the computer and the cell phone. Suddenly, a theoretical debate is a practical one.

What is the cost of big data?

Until the beginning of this month, big data — the accumulation of vast amounts of information in the search for patterns of behavior and prospects for corporate revenue — were relatively benign, even a possible economic panacea. What is the best way to shape products and marketing appeals? Examine big data.

But do big data infringe on our freedoms? We again ask the price of progress.

Consider what Henry Drummond, a character in Inherit the Wind, said on the subject: “Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, ‘All right, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.’”

Who is a whistle-blower and who is a threat to national security?

This question beings us back to the threat these measures are designed to combat. It is an analog to the distinction between a terrorist and a freedom fighter.

This question has skewed many of the usual patterns and alliances. Many of the loudest advocates of government openness believe the Edward Snowden disclosures are of a nature and magnitude different from the customary leak. The Tea Party is split between those who emphasize civil liberties and those who stress national security.

This brings us full circle, back to the vital balance between freedom and security, rendered all the more difficult in a nation that only recently asked why authorities did not know more about the brothers accused of bombing the finish line at the Boston Marathon.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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