326. "Balancing Privacy, Public Good," USA Today (April 27, 2000), page 17A.


If you are keen that no one sees what you look like under whatever you wear, you'd better avoid the airports of New York City, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles -- and soon most others.

Before you exclaim, "Come on, even George Orwell . . . ," here are the bare facts: The U.S. Customs Service is introducing new X-ray machines that see through cloth and reveal whether people are concealing guns or contraband.

Should you rush to become a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union to protect whatever shreds of privacy are left? Actually, just the opposite may be called for. Many of the new technologies that civil libertarians fight, which do curtail some privacy, are so beneficial that most of us are likely to welcome them.

ACLU representative Barry Steinhardt recently alarmed an audience in New York City by telling them that Customs officers are able to see you walking through an airport as if you had only a birthday suit to your name.

The fact is, though, that these machines meet some rather strict libertarian guidelines. They can be used only if the individual consents in writing to being searched. And even then, a supervisor must approve the screening.

One cannot help but wonder: What alternative is the ACLU recommending? Does it prefer pat-down searches, which many find more intrusive? Random searches, which amount to suspicionless searches? Or does it seek to fashion a new right for travelers to bring into the United States whatever guns or explosives their Osama bin Ladin equivalents may desire?

There are other signs that civil libertarians are going overboard. Take their reaction to DNA testing. This new crime-fighting tool allows public authorities to take thousands of violent criminals off the streets. In England, more than 70,000 suspects have been linked to crimes through their DNA. In the United States, where the national DNA database is new, the FBI already reports that 200 cases have been solved this way. Better yet, DNA testing has achieved what should be a civil libertarian's dream: It has sprung at least 70 innocent people out of jail in the United States alone.

Civil libertarians, however, oppose DNA testing. They argue that keeping the results of criminals' DNA tests constitutes an unnecessary violation of privacy.

The ACLU announced that it "believes that any proposal to create wholesale DNA databanks of suspects presents a frightening potential for a 'brave new world' in which genetic information is routinely collected and used in ways that likely will result in abuse and discrimination." And Philip Bereano, an ACLU board member frets: "These are technologies in which powerful organs in society control members with less power."

Cameras in public places, such as parking lots and street corners, also are objected to despite the fact that they are an effective tool to deter crime. For instance, cameras used to capture the license plates of those who run red lights save lives while replacing cops at street corners. The Supreme Court has not objected, ruling that privacy is not violated when a reasonable person has no expectation of privacy.

Such cameras, however, trouble such privacy advocates as Marc Rotenberg, who worries that "surveillance" will become so routine that it will result in "the investigation and tracking of people in public places without any reason to believe they are engaged in wrongdoing."

Edward Borges of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) fears that cameras raise "the specter of an Orwellian Big Brother government scrutinizing the minute-to-minute activities of its law-abiding citizens as they go shopping, as they congregate on the corner to discuss the problems at their children's school and as they sneak a kiss to a lover when they think no one is looking."

A representative of NYCLU believes that "we will no longer be free to engage in public activities without fear that government officials, who are supposed to be working for us, are watching everything we do."

E-Z passes have not fared any better. These passes allow motorists to drive through a tollbooth without stopping, relying on a transponder within a card on the windshield that debits the motorist's account. In the United Kingdom, these devices also are employed to catch speeders. Civil libertarians are troubled by both uses, despite the fact that they have been widely welcomed by millions of people who use such passes, and despite the fact that people still are free to pay tolls the old-fashioned way. Moreover, no one has a right to speed, and the difference between catching speeders one way or another is a technical matter, not a constitutional one.

Yet Norman Siegel, executive director of NYCLU, says: "We've been concerned any time government develops the technology to track where everybody is going, to, in effect, spy on people. It's the opening of the door for government databases to collect information on people's lawful behavior." He also fears that the information could be used in political campaigns or to smear public personalities.

Civil libertarian groups do play an important role in our public life. They serve to countervail a built-in tendency of public authorities to extend their powers beyond what is needed.

The question, nevertheless, still stands: Is the best way to maintain the difficult balance between individual rights and the common good -- especially public safety and public health -- for civil libertarians to push their arguments to such extremes? Or would we all be better off if they focused on those practices that Customs agents, police officers and other law enforcement personnel engage in that truly offend our rights? And should civil libertarians cool their rhetoric when the challenges to our liberties are minor or hypothetical?

It's your call, but I suggest that before you send your next donation, look again, or attach a note: Extremism in the protection of liberty is a vice.

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