The Effort to Stigmatize Privacy as Anti-American

Some NSA defenders would have us believe it's radical and unreasonable to help Americans to communicate in secret with friends and family.
Loren Kerns/Flickr

After noting Ladar Levison's new effort to build an NSA-proof email service that protects users from the prying eyes of the surveillance state, I wasn't surprised to see a reader object. Its creators "might want to ask the public if they really want this service, a service which will undoubtedly make it much easier for radical anti-US elements anywhere in the world to much more easily plan and wreak their proverbial havoc against the American government," she wrote. "I expect the rabid Tea Partiers will be dumping lots of dough into Kickstarter to help Levison pump up those who might be anxious to repeat 9/11, but this time with 4 planes aimed at the White House in order to rid them of their, the Teas, arch enemy. I for one do NOT want such a service, which will make it impossible for the government to do what it is supposed to do: protect the U.S. against all types of attacks."

Remember when George W. Bush was president and dissenters on the left were the ones accused of empowering the terrorists? But my purpose isn't to dwell on the anti-Tea Party attacks. Instead, I want to concede one point. My reader is right that if the NSA can't hoover up and analyze every piece of email sent in the world, it may miss some conversations between terrorists intent on doing us harm. Privacy prevents authorities from seeing all sorts of things, some of them bad. 

What I'd like is for this reader to apply her standard generally, not just to digital communications.

Why stop at criticizing those of us who want to be able to write emails without the government seeing it? The Boston Marathon bombers were assisted in their plot by the ability to carry pressure-cooker IEDs past security officials in opaque backpacks. I am sitting at my computer beside my black Swiss Gear backpack, supporting a company that helps conceal things with intentional design decisions.  

Is that wrong of me?

Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City using an explosive-filled Ryder truck. Yet truck companies continue to offer vehicles with metal sides. 

They even sell locks for the back! 

Most terrorist attacks are plotted, at least in part, inside terrorists' dwellings. In the U.S. those are subject to Fourth Amendment protections and built with opaque walls, doors with locks, and windows that are frequently covered with the products of dastardly curtain and mini-blind companies, who facilitate all sorts of bad behavior by being complicit in the method by which it is hidden from view. Wouldn't police be more able to stop bad guys if we all lived in glass houses?

In the analog world, everyone recognizes the absurdity of effectively outlawing privacy or the notion that the government should be empowered to conduct surveillance on everyone in order to catch a few bad apples. Why do so many Americans totally lose that understanding when the conversation turns to the digital world? It is not radical to believe Americans should be free to talk to their friends, lovers, family members, and associates in private, without anyone listening. And it is no more radical to suggest that they ought to be able to do so via email. 

With a warrant, criminals can be targeted. The rest of us should be left alone. But the NSA and its defenders are succeeding in redefining longstanding expectations about privacy as if they're extremist positions that threaten America. It isn't so. What Ladar Levison and his associates at Silent Circle are trying to build is email that affords a degree of privacy many Americans assumed they already had. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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