To what extent is the intrusion on our privacy for the sake of the society's security ethically justifiable?

This is a great question.

First I would ask: what are we trying to protect with security measures that invade privacy?

If it’s about identifying threats to the existential safety of citizenry, the most effective way to do this is likely not through surveillance, but through strengthening interpersonal relationships, interculturalism, community engagement and dialogue, other methods to encourage social and cultural interdependence and communication, and education about what developing threats look like and how to diffuse them. There is a recent video that highlights how a shift in social awareness could be key to helping someone who is at risk of perpetrating radical violence:

At the other extreme, there is a reliable history of governments making errors in both identification and punishment of people suspected of destructive threat. In fact you could say that the track record there leans strongly in the direction of oppression: false imprisonment, religious persecution, targeting political opponents, irrational fear-mongering, enforcing lockstep ideological groupthink, disenfranchisement of non-conformists, etc. Which is what the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 9th and (more broadly) 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were written to counter. (Along these lines, for those interested in the subtleties of how a “right to privacy” has played out in U.S. history specifically - and how it is has been viewed from a legal and Constitutional perspective - I recommend reading this brief but concise overview: Is it Protected by the Constitution?)

There is also an increasing body of evidence that identifies the root causes of violent extremism around the world - things like poverty; lack of education; suffering under oppressive regimes; disinformation and propaganda that demonizes “the other” to deflect blame away from the actual causes of shared suffering; lack of personal hope 0r economic mobility; and so on. I should think investing in addressing these underlying issues would go a long way towards attenuating conditions that lead to violent extremism, and thereby remedy threats.

So if you are trying to prevent catastrophic violence, there are probably much better ways to go about it that spying on people - and most of them seem like a much better approach in terms of “bang-for-buck” as well.

In addition, if intrusions to privacy are intended to protect or ensure individual and collective liberty, then I think there is an ironic contradiction there. What is liberty if not an ample degree of personal sovereignty; control over one’s own destiny; the same opportunity to improve one’s lot in life that everyone else has; freedom to think and say one’s own thoughts; freedom to travel everywhere; freedom to associate and assemble with others, regardless of their views; freedom from persecution, bullying, violence or hate speech simply because of personal beliefs, skin color, gender, social status or nationality; freedom to feel safe from unjustified intrusion when inside one’s own home, or from invasive searches while walking around or driving in public; and so on? Once we begin sacrificing some of these liberties for the sole purpose of allowing ourselves to “feel safer” from any boogeyman the government identifies on our behalf…well, where does it end? How much freedom are we willing to sacrifice to receive such uncertain (and often unsubstantiated) benefits…?

This speaks to a basic cost/benefit calculation. Consider a law that mandates, while driving on public roads, we wear a seatbelt “for our own safety.” This came into being from many years of statistics that showed not wearing a seatbelt clearly and indisputably increased injury and death from car accidents. Of course, there were still many people who refused to wear a seatbelt because they thought such a law was too invasive - it infringed on their personal sovereignty, and they didn’t want a “Nanny State” reaching that far into their personal habits or choices. There are a few of these rugged individualists still around, to be sure. But in this instance the cost/benefit calculation is very clear, in terms of being supported by a wealth of data: a small personal sacrifice in freedom - and one that has little impact on one’s driving ability - creates substantial benefit. Add to this that car accidents - both serious and small - have a high frequency and nearly universal probability, and the decision becomes a no-brainer.

But what are the cost/benefit variables for intrusive surveillance? How much freedom is being sacrificed, and for how much substantive gain in safety? The odds are infinitesimally small that any individual will be harmed by acts of terrorism…and yet every individual is expected to sacrifice their expectation of privacy “for their own safety?” It is a bit like insisting every person who gets onto a plane provides a DNA sample to the Airline and takes out an expensive life insurance policy - after all, the plane could crash, investigators often have difficulty identifying crash remains, and airlines can be held financially liable for damages. Wouldn’t that seem a bit extreme? Sure, because not that many airplanes crash…in fact, it’s extremely rare and is the safest form of travel. Still…it’s a lot riskier to fly on a plane than to expect to be killed or injured in a terrorist attack. So why isn’t the same logic considered around national security? Why are greater sacrifices expected for low-probability events, and for less provable benefit? I think these questions are at the heart of the balance between individual freedoms and individual responsibilities regarding collective security - this is how civil society is constructed after all.

There are many subtleties to the question of what liberty is and how to promote and protect it, and for those interested in that discussion I would offer my essay: The Goldilocks Zone of Integral Liberty. At the end of the essay, there are the beginnings of an evaluation method for freedom using the variables, metrics and principles outlined in the essay - I think this is the (eventual) approach we need to take to evaluate various cost/benefit arrangements throughout civil society regarding liberty.

My 2 cents.

(From Quora question:


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