The Terms and Conditions of Government
Citizens have a reasonable expectation that their privacy won’t be arbitrarily invaded.


Worse than those who accept this new state of affairs with alacrity are those who are quick to conflate one’s personal behavior with one’s expectations of privacy. “Monitoring isn’t so bad as long as you accept privacy doesn’t exist. We’re all public figures,” Larry Dignan glibly charged on ZDNet on June 7. “Let’s face it,” he continued, ”the NSA is no different than that jackass you can’t remember and friended anyway.” In Dignan’s view, as we spend our days willfully sharing everything online, we have no reason to care if the government gets involved.


This is a bizarre, imbecilic, and even dangerous idea. That many are reckless with the information they choose to share online is true. But it is also utterly irrelevant to the debate at hand. To argue that a narcissistic teenager who willingly shares the intimate details of his life on social media is, in consequence, not entitled to Fourth Amendment protections of the information that he elects not to share is tantamount to arguing that a willingly promiscuous individual is not entitled to be protected from sexual assault. What you choose to give away and what may be taken from you by force — or in secret — are utterly different things. Should a reckless spender be asked to accept an arbitrarily imposed tax bill? (“But you already waste your money!”) Should a renowned blabbermouth expect to be wiretapped? (“But you already tell everyone everything!”)

So what if you have granted Facebook permission to use your photographs in its marketing campaign? So what if you have agreed that Gmail may tailor its advertising to the texts of your correspondence? You certainly haven’t agreed that, as a matter of course, they will hand over the details of when you logged in and how long you spent online. You did not expect that, except in truly exceptional circumstances, your behavior would be collected and collated by the state. This distinction is crucial. Human history teaches us that the NSA is an awful lot different from “that jackass you friended and can’t remember.” For a start, the jackass doesn’t have a paramilitary wing.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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