Neither Liberty Nor Safety

According to U.S. News and World Report, “U.S. officials have advised visitors to this summer’s Olympics in Beijing that their laptops may be targeted for duplication or bugging by the Chinese” government.

But what is even more telling is that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security also claims the same right for Customs agents to seize the laptops, cameras and other electronic equipment of air travelers without warrant and duplicate any and all “corporate secrets, legal and financial data, personal E-mails and photographs, along with stored passwords for accounts with companies ranging from Netflix to Bank of America.” And, this totalitarian claim was defended in an April decision of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Fortunately, we are now seeing an expanded movement to oppose such blatant disregards of property rights and the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, with businesses and other organizations fighting back with lawsuits, congressional hearings, and campaigns to arouse public opinion. This issue is yet another example of the utilitarian folly of compromising individual rights and the rule of law in the name of “fighting terrorism.” As Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center notes, “customs officials do not go through briefcases to review and copy paper business records or personal diaries, which is apparently what they are now doing in digital form. These pda’s don’t have bombs in them.” [emphasis added]

For a devastating critique of the self-defeating view that rights and the rule of law should be sacrificed for an undefinable “security” (i.e., how such powers are actually used to enrich special-interests by destroying the protection of the law for the general public), please see the most recent book by Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert Higgs, Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government.

David J. Theroux is Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Institute and Publisher of the quarterly journal, The Independent Review.
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