A civil libertarian reflects on the dangers of the surveillance state.

by Peggy Noonan
Aug. 16, 2013
The Wall Street Journal

What is privacy? Why should we want to hold onto it? Why is it important, necessary, precious?

Is it just some prissy relic of the pretechnological past?

We talk about this now because of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency revelations, and new fears that we are operating, all of us, within what has become or is becoming a massive surveillance state. They log your calls here, they can listen in, they can read your emails. They keep the data in mammoth machines that contain a huge collection of information about you and yours. This of course is in pursuit of a laudable goal, security in the age of terror.

Is it excessive? It certainly appears to be. Does that matter? Yes. Among other reasons: The end of the expectation that citizens’ communications are and will remain private will probably change us as a people, and a country.

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Among the pertinent definitions of privacy from the Oxford English Dictionary: “freedom from disturbance or intrusion,” “intended only for the use of a particular person or persons,” belonging to “the property of a particular person.” Also: “confidential, not to be disclosed to others.” Among others, the OED quotes the playwright Arthur Miller, describing the McCarthy era: “Conscience was no longer a private matter but one of state administration.”

Privacy is connected to personhood. It has to do with intimate things—the innards of your head and heart, the workings of your mind—and the boundary between those things and the world outside.

A loss of the expectation of privacy in communications is a loss of something personal and intimate, and it will have broader implications. That is the view of Nat Hentoff, the great journalist and civil libertarian. He is 88 now and on fire on the issue of privacy. “The media has awakened,” he told me. “Congress has awakened, to some extent.” Both are beginning to realize “that there are particular constitutional liberty rights that [Americans] have that distinguish them from all other people, and one of them is privacy.”

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