Politics & Policy

A Tale of Two Eavesdroppings

Sometimes technology is used to inhibit our freedom, sometimes it's not.

Liberals of all stripes have jumped on President Bush’s strategy to protect all Americans through the use of selective eavesdropping by arguing that the privacy of American citizens is being violated. On the other side of the argument, Ben Stein, noted author and market commentator, recently pointed out that he would rather let the government track his library card than be threatened by another terrorist attack. The jury is still out on this important issue. Yet, without the technology of wiretapping and eavesdropping, there wouldn’t be much of an argument either way.

One must remember that eavesdropping on German and Japanese communications during World War II contributed to our victory over the Axis powers and saved thousands, if not millions, of lives. Today’s world war against the terrorists should not be relegated to a peacetime framework that limits a similar ability to achieve victory.

A related concern in this debate is how the advancement of technology opens up a whole new interpretation of wiretapping and eavesdropping. Look at the Internet. First there was e-mail and more recently instant-messenger services that have brought a whole new meaning to “verbal” communications. E-mail allowed people to write electronic notes, letters, jokes, and send them to an unlimited number of recipients — all for free. In reality, e-mail was an electronic form of verbal communication facilitated by technology. Instant messaging, a real-time version of e-mail, has in a way become the electronic version of conversation. Participants “talk” to each other over the Internet via a provider of messenger services and can literally carry on a number of electronic conversations simultaneously.

Both of these electronic communication techniques have enhanced our ability to “talk” to each other. They’ve also opened up a new avenue for potential eavesdropping.

Not so long ago, courts began to subpoena records of e-mail messages as a way to determine who said what and when. The government was quick to require selective industries and companies to maintain records of all employee e-mails. If they did not, large fines would encourage them to do so.

Not too long after that, the government jumped on instant-messaging services, insisting that some companies maintain detailed records of all messenger conversations of all employees. Not only were the companies involved required to keep these records, they were to demonstrate that they had put in place the mechanisms necessary to track these records. Once again, failure to do so would mean a substantial penalty.

Most interestingly, this obvious intrusion into the privacy of Americans seems to have fallen on deaf ears when it comes to the liberal establishment that is so upset about President Bush’s eavesdropping on terrorists. While liberals burn the midnight oil to undermine the president’s policies to protect Americans by threatening impeachment for eavesdropping, virtually any other government entity can intrude upon the privacy of U.S. citizens by having access to electronic conversations. This is not too far removed from a requirement that companies record all real conversations between employees, just in case something might be said that could be used in some subsequent court case.

When technology one day allows us to record our thoughts, will the government require all individuals to be subject to the surveillance of their minds?

But not to veer from my point — which is that there’s more than a whiff of technological hypocrisy in the air these days. The liberal privacy promoters are much more interested in attacking the president for eavesdropping on terrorists than raising concern over the government’s systematic monitoring of users of the Internet.

Am I missing something here?

– Thomas E. Nugent is executive vice president and chief investment officer of PlanMember Advisors, Inc. and principal of Victoria Capital Management, Inc.

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