Privacy vs. Security: Tread Carefully

`We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." So begins the Preamble to the Constitution and the delicate negotiation between citizens and state that has so defined America. The preamble establishes not only the principle that government derives its power from the people but also that individuals decide which freedoms to curtail and delegate in exchange for the security promised by government. During America's long history, that deal has often been renegotiated, especially in time of war. And the dialogue is starting once again.

It seems necessary for Americans to give up a measure of privacy to combat terrorism. In exchange, they have the right to demand that the government follow three principles. First, the surrender of specific liberties must be temporary, not permanent. Second, increased surveillance must be audited by the courts and documented. Finally, individuals must be able to see data files on them--and correct the information.

The government is relying on technology to combat terrorism. It is asking to integrate databases of police, intelligence agencies, and, at times, private corporations such as credit-card companies and airlines. It is discussing facial-recognition software, public cameras, and other devices to monitor movement. It wants increased powers to use its Carnivore software to eavesdrop on digital communications via e-mail, cell phones, and personal digital assistants. There is growing pressure for "smart" national ID cards. Add it up, and it's a lot of privacy to give up in the name of security.

Americans say they are willing to do it. A recent Harris Poll shows that 86% favor wider use of facial surveillance, 81% want closer monitoring of bank and credit-card transactions, and 68% support a national ID card. If such a card is necessary, Washington should mandate that only a minimum of data be included: perhaps name, address, fingerprint, blood type, U.S. citizenship, immigration status, country of origin, and visa status.

For a nation of individuals incredibly protective of their rights and liberties, the polls reflect a dramatic showing of trust in government. Just a year ago, polls showed Americans worried about commercial encroachments on their privacy, from data marketing companies to credit bureaus. They still are worried but appear to trust the government to maintain the right balance in a time of crisis. Washington must not abuse this trust. The people will reclaim their rights when the emergency is over, as they have after every war.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.