University News

Experts debate privacy in digital age

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Two experts in constitutional law discussed the conflict between privacy and security in the Internet age Monday night in Salomon 101 during the first Janus Forum lecture of the semester. In a world in which cities are suffused with video surveillance networks capable of face recognition, license plates can be read by satellites, data about one’s location and interests can be mined online, and robotic drones can be programmed to keep tabs on individual people, how can the U.S. legal system keep up?  And how much privacy should citizens of a free society demand? 

These questions and more were posed by Michael Dreeben, deputy solicitor general of the United States, and Jeffrey Rosen, professor of law at George Washington University and legal affairs editor of the New Republic. A question-and-answer session followed remarks by Dreeben and Rosen.

Dreeben invoked the Supreme Court case U.S. v. Jones  as an example of the issues involved in interpreting the Fourth Amendment, which is meant to protect civilians from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” in the modern technological era.  In U.S. v. Jones, the court assessed the constitutionality of tracking drug dealer Antoine Jones’ movements via a GPS tracker attached to the bottom of his car. 

The court did not find that GPS tracking is illegal under the Fourth Amendment, but instead found that it constituted trespassing because of the nature of the device’s attachment to Jones’ car. 

The courts, Dreeben said, are not fully responsible for regulating governmental abuses. He also stressed the importance of the legislatures in imposing privacy regulations.

Jeffrey Rosen, acclaimed by legal historian David Garrow as “the nation’s most widely read and influential legal commentator,” was next up to the podium. 

The Fourth Amendment does not go far enough, Rosen said. In a conversation with the head of public policy at Google, Rosen said he found out about the “Open Earth” project. This project, Rosen said, would entail the compilation of all the world’s live video surveillance footage into one individually searchable engine. With this technology, Rosen said, one could achieve 24/7 surveillance of “anyone, anywhere.”

In an environment of constant surveillance by government and other sources, Rosen warned that individual liberty would be greatly curtailed, and we would continuously feel the need to prove our innocence to the cameras. 

Both Rosen and Dreeben said they are in favor of expanding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of privacy, though Dreeben urged the audience not to forget that government access to information has a positive side – that sometimes, “protection is a good thing,” he said.

Both agreed that the government must work to find a balance between respecting individual privacy on the one hand and interests of security on the other.

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