Privacy in a post 9/11 world

We've seen a lot of changes to personal privacy over the last 10 years. The biggest? The creation of a National Surveillance Industrial Complex.


Last week I was in Germany, as a guest of the IFA Berlin consumer electronics show. That means, of course, that I had to perform the airport security samba. I took off my shoes and my belt; stuffed my watch, keys, cell phone, and loose change into the pockets of my jacket; took my laptop and my tablet PC out of my backpack; and placed them all into gray plastic bins on the X-ray machine’s conveyor belt. (I’d already removed the Swiss Army Knife from my bag and drank or dumped any bottles containing more than three ounces of liquid.)

Then I stepped into the scanner, turned sideways, and did the “hands up” pose. Lord only knows how much of me the TSA agent saw. (I don’t envy them that job.) When I stepped out I got wanded to make sure I wasn’t hiding something under my clothing. At the end of the line I collected everything, put myself back together, and moved on – leaving the TSA and my fellow passengers reasonably assured I was not carrying box cutters, shoe bombs, or incendiary devices in my underwear.

This is the world we live in after 9/11. It’s not a huge sacrifice to go through airport security. I’m happy to do it, despite my suspicions that it is mostly just National Security Theater, designed primarily to reassure us that the government is doing more to protect us now than it was 10 years ago.

9/11 was many things – an enormous national tragedy, a huge wake-up call, a time when this country felt truly united, if only briefly. But it also marks the unofficial birth of the National Surveillance State.

This is a topic for a book, or even a series of books, not a blog post. So I can only touch on a handful of ways 9/11 has changed our notions of privacy. The first one being the Patriot Act.

This massive piece of legislation, passed by an overwhelming majority of Congress virtually without debate, broke down bureaucratic barriers between law enforcement and intelligence gathering agencies, letting them collaborate in the hunt for terrorists. But it also turned our 4th amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure on their ear.

Peter Swire, a professor at the Moritz College of Law of Ohio State University and former top privacy official in the Clinton administration, says the Patriot Act took reforms to law enforcement that had already been proposed by the Clintons and stripped out all the privacy protections.

A month after the attacks Swire wrote an Op Ed for the Atlanta Journal Constitution in which he said, in part:

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