As general counsel of the National Security Agency in the 1990s, Stewart Baker advocated for limiting the government’s intelligence-gathering powers in the name of civil liberties. Then the 9/11 attacks happened, and Baker concluded that the limits he’d supported contributed to the security lapse. So he began pushing the case for surveillance—first while serving as a member of the George W. Bush administration, then by writing op-eds, hosting podcasts, and sparring with opponents who believe that his proposals endanger fundamental rights. As the country struggles to contain the coronavirus, he thinks that many Americans will experience a conversion like his, becoming more willing to make sacrifices to their privacy. He captured the mood of the pro-surveillance camp in the title of a recent podcast episode: “Is Privacy in Pandemics Like Atheism in Foxholes?”
Baker and other surveillance proponents say that controversial measures could save lives. Baker particularly supports the idea that the government should be able to access contact data recorded by your smartphone’s Bluetooth signal and, when necessary, location data recorded by its GPS. Tech companies, meanwhile, have reportedly proposed using thermal-imaging sensors and deploying security cameras with facial-recognition software to track infected people and their contacts. These ideas are meeting resistance from privacy advocates and reigniting a debate about surveillance and civil liberties that gained momentum after the September 11 attacks. Baker, who was also an early member of the Department of Homeland Security, told me he believes the attacks showed that an overcommitment to privacy left the country exposed; afterward, the balance tilted heavily toward surveillance, leading to practices such as warrantless wiretapping and the bulk collection of phone records. But his opponents have a different view of what happened after 9/11: The government leveraged public fears to expand its power, many new surveillance measures did little to make the country safer, and the rights Americans gave up have been hard to win back.