Ethox and WEH Seminar - On balancing security and privacy

When duties arising from two different rights are incompatible with one another, the rights in question can be said to be in conflict. Public discourse is flooded with claims about the incompatibility between the right to privacy and the right to security. According to popular belief, the more privacy individuals enjoy, the less the state is able to provide security, and vice versa. According to former NSA security consultant Ed Giorgio, ‘[p]rivacy and security are a zero-sum game’ (cited by Wright 2008)—meaning that for every increase in one, there is a decrease in the other. In other words, the state seems to have incompatible duties: on the one hand, to respect its citizens’ right to privacy by refraining from spying on them, and on the other hand, to guarantee its citizens’ right to security, which, so the argument goes, cannot be done without spying on the general population.

In this presentation I focus on the supposed trade-off between privacy and security and argue that, more often than not, a decrease in privacy entails a decrease in security. In the context of terrorist threats and mass surveillance, I argue that the latter may be as risky for the security of citizens as the former.