Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

The Phony Trade-Off Between Privacy and Security


Most people take it for granted — because they’ve heard it so many times from politicians and pundits — that they must trade some privacy for security in this dangerous world. The challenge, we’re told, is to find the right “balance.” Let’s examine this.

On its face the idea seems reasonable. I can imagine hiring a firm to look after some aspect of my security. To do its job the firm may need some information about me that I don’t readily give out. It’s up to me to decide if I like the trade-off. Nothing wrong there. In a freed market, firms would compete for my business, and competition would pressure firms to ask only for information required for  their services. As a result, a minimum amount of information would be requested. If I thought even that was too much, I would be free to choose to look after my security myself. If I did business with a firm that violated the terms of our contract, I would have recourse. At the very least I could terminate the relationship and strike up another or none at all.

In other words, in the freed market I would find the right “balance” for myself, and you would do the same. One size wouldn’t be deemed to fit all. The market would cater to people with a range of security/privacy concerns, striking the “balance” differently for different people. That’s as it should be.

Actually, we can say that there would be no trade-off between privacy and security at all, because the information would be voluntarily disclosed by each individual on mutually acceptable terms. Under those circumstances, it wouldn’t be right to call what the firm does an “intrusion.”

But that sort of situation is not what Barack Obama, Mike Rogers, Peter King, and their ilk mean when they tell us that “we” need to find the right balance between security and privacy. They mean they will dictate to us what the alleged balance will be. We will have no real say in the matter, and they can be counted on to find the balance on the “security” side of the spectrum as suits their interests. That’s how these things work. (See “NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year, audit finds.”) Unlike in a freed market, what the government does is intrusive, because it is done without our consent and often without our knowledge. (I hope no one will say that voting or continuing to live in the United States constitutes consent to invasions of privacy.)

Of course, our rulers can’t really set things to the security side of the spectrum because the game is rigged. When we give up privacy — or, rather, when our rulers take it — we don’t get security in return; we get a more intrusive state, which means we get more insecurity. Roderick Long made a similar point on his blog, The Austro-Athenian Empire:

In the wake of the recent NSA revelations, there’s increased talk about the need to “balance” freedom against security. I even see people recycling Larry Niven’s law that freedom + security = a constant.

Nonsense. What we want is not to be attacked or coercively interfered with — by anyone, be they our own government, other nations’ governments, or private actors. Would you call that freedom? or would you call it security?

You can’t trade off freedom against security because they’re exactly the same thing.

Likewise, where the state is concerned, you can’t trade off privacy against security becausethey’re exactly the same thing. Anyone who reads dystopian novels knows that government access to personal information about people serves to inhibit and control them. That’s insecurity.

Now it will no doubt be said that while in one respect we are more insecure when “our” government spies on us (the scare quotes are to indicate that I think the U.S. government is an occupying power), in return we gain security against threats from others, say, al-Qaeda. But I see no prima facie case for favoring official domestic threats over freelance foreign threats. I’m reminded of what Mel Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, says in The Patriot: “Would you tell me please, Mr. Howard, why should I trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away? An elected legislature can trample a man’s rights as easily as a king can.”

Some foreigners might want to come here and kill Americans, but the U.S. government has been no slouch in that department. How many Americans who were sent by “their” government to fight in foreign wars never came back? How many came back with their lives shattered? The number dwarfs the number of casualties from terrorism.

Throw in the fact that some foreigners want to kill Americans only because Obama’s government (like George W. Bush’s and others before it) is killing them, and the phony nature of this alleged protection is clear.

Obama & Co. say they welcome a public debate about calibrating the trade-off between security and privacy. No, they don’t. They wouldn’t even be going through the motions had it not been for the heroic whistleblower Edward Snowden, whom they are determined to lock away for life — if they catch him. A true debate is the last thing they want. What they want is a simulated debate in order to quiet public concern about spying.

As Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic points out, Obama’s new directive creating the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies is charged with “accounting for other policy considerations, such as the risk of unauthorized disclosure and our need to maintain the public trust.” Unlike his public statement, the official directive says nothing about preventing violations of privacy and related abuses.

Friedersdorf comments,

What happened to those goals? The closest the Monday directive comes to them is an instruction to remember “our need to maintain the public trust” as one of many policy considerations.

Forget whether abuses are happening, or whether privacy rights are in fact being protected. [Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper need only probe the perception of trust. Remember, this is a man with a demonstrated willingness to tell lies under oath when he decides doing so serves the greater good.

We should reject the phony debate, the phony trade-off, and the phony “balance” that will be struck. There is a fundamental conflict of interest between the American people and the U.S. government. The sooner we learn that, the safer we’ll be.

Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation ( in Fairfax, Va. He can be reached through his blog, Free Association.

Sheldon Richman, author of the forthcoming America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
Lara Gardner
Why I’m Not Voting
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017