Drawing the line between privacy and protection

The pilot who crashed the Germanwings plane, taking 150 lives, was too ill to work, according to doctors’ notes found at his home. But Germany’s strict medical privacy laws barred the doctors from conveying that judgment to the airline.

A horrific event that could have been averted with a sharing of information happened because of laws designed to protect privacy. As typically occurs in such cases, the same public that supported such laws turns around and asks: Why didn’t the authorities know?

It’s really hard to get an intelligent conversation going about the balance between privacy and security. Posturing over government intrusion into our personal lives blossoms at times of calm and then wilts when terrorists hijack the headlines.

Not long ago, privacy advocates were inflaming the public over the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. In doing so, they often exploit the public’s confusion on what information is collected.

Last October, CNN anchor Carol Costello grilled Sen. Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, on NSA spying activities, in an exchange that indicated she didn’t quite know what metadata is. As Coats tried to explain, metadata is information about numbers we call (the date, time and duration of each call) — not what was said in the calls.

That’s what the government computers track. If they flag a worrisome pattern, a court must grant permission for a human being to listen in on the content.

Another tactic of the program’s critics is to point to every terrible thing that happens as evidence the program doesn’t work. “It didn’t stop Americans from being beheaded,” Costello said.

No, the NSA didn’t stop radical groups from kidnapping Americans in Middle Eastern war zones and executing them in their cruel way. It can’t stop every terrorist outrage in the world, including in Boston. But it has been credited with uncovering plots to wreak havoc.

The grown-up question is: Where do we draw the line between our right to privacy and our desire to be protected?

Should we care if a government computer collects the metadata on all our calls? I don’t. The phone company has that information. As for noting the websites we visit, Google knows all about that.

Sure, metadata can provide clues on one’s interests — say, searches on a disease or visits to pornography sites. A rogue NSA worker might tap this information for illegal purposes, but there’s been scant evidence that such abuse has occurred, the hyperbolic charges notwithstanding.

Recall the furor in France after Edward Snowden released stolen documents describing the NSA surveillance programs. Now, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, French leaders are proposing an NSA-style program that would let their country’s intelligence agencies do similar sweeps of metadata.

Recall the anger in Germany over the Snowden revelations. The CIA’s top official there was expelled. And President Obama had to apologize for American monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, something we should not have done.

But now, when so many German citizens are joining radical groups in Syria — nine so far have participated in suicide attacks — the German government is more tied into American intelligence than it was before. After all, the U.S. is the only country to track foreign fighters crossing into Syria.

In the U.S., the horror of the beheadings has caused public protests against U.S. spying programs to rapidly fade. Our society seems especially vulnerable to the hurt inflicted by terrorism; witness the attention paid the Boston Marathon bombing trial — a relatively small attack by the standards of modern terrorism.

The next time something gruesome happens, expect to hear, “Why didn’t they stop that?” To say we can be secure without giving up some privacy is child’s talk.

Email Froma Harrop at fharrop@gmail.com.

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