Sunday, October 27, 2013

On the Right to Privacy

The following text is a slightly modified version of a speech I delivered at the October 26th rally for Restore the Fourth Chicago, in solidarity with the StopWatching.Us rally in Washington on the same day.

This is a beautiful sight, Chicago.  We’ve just heard from libertarians, socialists, democrats, republicans, Tea Party members, communists, and everything in between.  People from every color of the political spectrum have come together today in support of our natural and non-negotiable right to privacy. Thank you to everyone for coming out today and standing together here in beautiful Chicago.

I’m here to talk about the fourth amendment itself: what it is, and why it’s so important.

The fourth amendment begins by stating that: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated”.

But what constitutes an unreasonable search or seizure?  The second part of the fourth amendment provides some concrete protections for privacy rights:  “And no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

This means that search warrants have to be specific.  By definition, this excludes things such as, say, general warrants that would authorize mass surveillance by collecting information about everyone’s email

These are not specific warrants, so there is no way such blanket surveillance could possibly conform to the fourth amendment.  Such actions by our government are unconstitutional and must be stopped.

A disappointing number of people in this country respond to all this by saying, “What—so the government can’t go after criminals?”  To which we say, of course they can!  The government can conduct searches and seizures, as long as they demonstrate probable cause.  All the government needs to do in order to be in compliance with the fourth amendment is to explain to a judge—not a panel of rubber stamps, but a real judge—why they suspect a particular individual of a crime, or why they need to seize a particular piece of information. Is this so unreasonable?  Is this too high a bar?

When the constitution was ratified, it did not yet include our bill of rights.  New York sent a recommended bill of rights to Congress consisting of 25 amendments.  Virginia originally advocated 20 amendments.  Eventually, the first congress distilled these lists down to 12 amendments, and ratified 10 of them.  These 10 amendments are our Bill of Rights, and they consist of what our founding fathers felt were the most important and vital rights to protect in the new nation of the United States of America.

Why did the Fourth Amendment make the cut?

Why did our founding fathers consider privacy to be so important—important enough to explicitly protect in our founding document?

The answer isn’t immediately obvious.  It’s why we hear, over and over, that old argument from people unconcerned with the current state of privacy in this country. “Why are you concerned with privacy?  You don’t have anything to worry about as long as you have NOTHING TO HIDE

This is a loaded question.  Security expert Bruce Schneier points out the logical fallacy inherent in this oft-repeated phrase: it assumes that only criminals and wrongdoers need privacy.  That the only reason anyone would want to keep something to themselves is if it was bad or wrong.

On the face of it, this is absurd.  Nearly every human being keeps certain things private that are not bad, wrong, or shameful.  As Bruce Schneier points out, we go to the bathroom in private.  We have sex in private.  We write journals in private.  We have our own private thoughts and feelings; our own private selves.  Part of being a human being, part of being an individual, is the concept of privacy: that separation between me, as an individual, and we, as a society.   

There are more subtle barriers of privacy than that most fundamental one too.  We share more with our partners than our friends.  We share more with our friends than our acquaintances.  And we share more with our acquaintances than with the NSA—or at least, that’s how it ought to be!

We say things to friends and family that we would never say in public: thoughts we are still working through, feelings we are not proud of, things that might be misconstrued.  Earlier this year, a 19 year old kid was arrested and thrown in jail as a terrorist for making a joke on the online game League of Legends.  

Pictured: Terrorism

Here’s what he said, according to CNN:

"Someone had said something to the effect of 'Oh you're insane. You're crazy. You're messed up in the head. To which he replied 'Oh yeah, I'm real messed up in the head. I'm going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still-beating hearts.'  LOL J/K"

What?  Someone went to jail for that?

The sad fact is that, if not for an anonymous benefactor who posted his bail, Justin Carter would likely still be in prison.  How many of us have made jokes with friends that could be misconstrued?  Are we willing to live in a world where we must watch every word we say for fear of interrogation, prison, or worse?

During my two deployments as a Signals Intelligence analyst, I helped use some of the same technologies mentioned in Mr. Snowden’s reports against the Taliban in Afghanistan.  These technologies are weapons of war, designed for and intended for fighting our enemies abroad. The United States Government should not be at war with the people within its borders, the people it exists to protect.  We cannot tolerate these informational weapons of war to be pointed at and used on people in this country, at home, without suspicion or probable cause, as a matter of course!

Every day in this country, the United States government violates our codified and natural right to privacy, using ever more intrusive programs of mass surveillance and suspicion-less data collection.  We are here today because we will not accept this state of affairs.  Our right to privacy is non-negotiable, and this will never be OK! 

And we will continue to make our voices heard—by contacting our representatives, by voting only for those who respect our natural rights, and by joining together in mass protests like this one—until the day our fourth amendment protections are forever restored.

For more information on what you can do to protect your privacy rights, visit


  1. Hi! So as you probably figured out, I like reading your posts - you have a certain honest and straightforward category of intelligence that is unfortunately all too rare these days.
    Cutting straight to the point of the post: setting aside the values outlined in the constitution, and the dubious efficiency of NSA surveillance, and assuming that it WORKS, what is your take on the safety vs. freedom debate? As in, we sacrifice our freedoms and rights every day for a functional society, (which is why I'm waiving my natural freedom to shoot one of my more bitchy bosses). Call me a wimp, but if I have to sacrifice my privacy to ensure a safe society, to me - the choice is obvious. Even if the system makes mistakes, and even if we have to refrain from making statements like the one you described (or the one I expressed earlier), that still seems like a more sane choice. I feel like there is a flaw in this logic, though, but I can't quite figure out what it is.
    Again, this is just for a hypothetical system that surveys all of us and actually prevents crimes. The real thing is stupid and must be abolished.

  2. I've tried to syndicate your blog (mainly, just fyi) on LiveJournal, for those of us who are too damn lame to read anything besides our friends page. Now, I can finally keep up to date!