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Manhattan Institute

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Privacy First


Privacy First

April 18, 2004
Energy & EnvironmentTechnology / Infrastructure

The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age by Jeffrey Rosen, Random House, 260 pages, $24.95

AFTER 9/11, it seemed a good bet that the feds would soon get the go-ahead to compile central databases tracking people's travel and credit-card and cellphone habits, then sift for patterns to catch terrorists. But nothing of the sort happened.

Lawmakers on the left and right joined forces to derail not only Orwell-scale schemes, but even modest plans to coordinate existing police records. It's worth noting: At a moment of great peril to American lives, we chose to tie law enforcement's hands rather than risk future erosion of liberty and privacy.

So was this a good idea?

At times in his new book "The Naked Crowd," law professor Jeffrey Rosen succeeds in being almost maddeningly judicious. Nearly all surveillance and database technologies, he observes, "can be designed in ways that strike better or worse balances between liberty and security." Duly noted.

We need "oversight mechanisms to ensure that the system is focusing on potential terrorists rather than on innocent citizens" or on selective enforcement of lesser offenses. Couldn't agree more.

"Complicated choices" are necessary to achieve "a pragmatic balance." Right-o.

And yet Rosen lands firmly on the privacy advocates' side by a simple method: adopting extreme factual skepticism toward the usefulness of virtually every security measure.

* Passenger profiling? Too many false positives, since plenty of innocent travelers have recently taken flying lessons or resided in Karachi.

* Shoe removal? An "absurd" procedure whose "purpose is psychological rather than empirical," though there has been no replay of Richard Reid's transatlantic murder try in the 21/2 years since.

* Biometric ID? Still a high (if falling) error rate.

* "Data mining"? You'll never find the needle in that haystack.

* Toughening up post offices against bioterror? A "ritual of reassurance" meant to "purge the stigma of anthrax" rather than save actual lives, a view mailroom personnel may not share.

* Surveillance cameras everywhere, as is popular in Britain? They're really no use against violent crime or terror, say the experts he talks to.

Thus, each anti-terror measure in turn "threatens privacy without bringing more security," so that few if any of the trade-offs are real.

That's convenient. It's what I want to hear, too, since my libertarian instincts are probably much akin to Rosen's. But it leaves him in a fragile position when menaced by facts.

Read more closely, and he's obliged to concede that spycams do help solve some crimes, that Israeli airline El Al gets good results from its superintrusive passenger screening, and so on.

At times like these you want to lock Rosen in a room with my Manhattan Institute colleague Heather Mac Donald.

In the latest City Journal, Mac Donald asks why a country ready to pillory officials for not "connecting the dots" before 9/11 should at the same time deny them the most elementary means of dot-connecting. "Had a system been in place in 2001 for rapidly accessing commercial and government data, the FBI's intelligence investigators could have located every single one of the 9/11 team," she writes, given the hijackers' use of shared addresses, phone numbers and other identifiers.

And what does it mean that Washington bigwigs can lose their jobs for recommending high-tech initiatives that might someday endanger privacy, yet never lose them for failing to prevent terrorism?

Rosen, who has written brightly for The New Republic in the past, may know of on-point answers to these questions. But he doesn't provide them in this soggy seminar of a book.