The False Choice Between Security and Privacy

In the wake of recent disclosures about the federal government’s activities monitoring certain information held by Verizon, Facebook and other sources, President Obama articulated his rationale justifying those activities.  He stated that we have public policy choices to make about the tradeoffs between national security on one hand, and privacy and civil liberty rights on the other.  In essence, he stated that the more security we demand, the more privacy we must give up. This “zero sum game” view of privacy and security is reasonable, well-established and wrong. While the president may be right in the context of 20th century technologies, with today’s technologies, we have the ability to establish an information infrastructure that allows for the temporary disclosure of measurably-credible information for specific purposes, yet precludes the aggregation, hacking and mining of that information.

We deploy this technology, in a rudimentary way, every day.  When a young person seeks entry to a bar, someone in charge, such as the bartender, asks to see the person’s drivers license. The young person hands over their drivers license voluntarily because they want to enter into a “drinking transaction.” The bartender looks at the drivers license for only one thing: is the person of legal drinking age. Having confirmed that fact, the bartender hands back the drivers license and completes the “drinking transaction.”  The bartender doesn’t record the drivers license information because that isn’t necessary. Once the bartender has credible information that the young bar patron is of drinking age, no more information is needed. In this manner, the bartender “borrows” personal information to complete a transaction, but the bar patron remains, for all intents and purposes, anonymous.

This manner of using personal information to qualify a person for a potential transaction, whether it involves access to alcohol, access to an airplane, access to our country, access to gun purchases, access to credit or otherwise, can and should be implemented on a very fundamental and broad basis, so that for each transaction in the world requiring the disclosure of personal information, measurably credible information can be “borrowed” for the purpose of a specific transaction. Once the transaction occurs (or is rejected), we remain anonymous. All of our personal data, including the transaction data, remains with us on our personal database, instead in the hands of Big Data or Big Brother.  This kind of system could logically be implemented with the deployment of “smart” ID cards in connection with the Real ID Act and its legislative progency.

While law enforcement and national security interests might initially view this anonymizing of transaction data as a loss of valuable information that can be derived from the mining of widely distributed Big Data, there would be nothing to stop law enforcement and national security interests from obtaining warrants to search personal databases for information legitimately related to the scope of their investigations, and such data would be a rich, concentrated source of directly relevant, measurably-credible data instead of the vast sea of questionably relevant, questionably credible data that must now be sorted through.

In short, the historical, seemingly immutable tradeoff between security and privacy referenced by President Obama need not be our controlling  paradigm anymore if we have the audacity to re-think how we collect and manage our personal information transactions.