On the one hand, privacy gives people leeway for free thought, freedom of expression, and criticism without fear of personal consequences.

On the other hand, security ensures the structural integrity of society and grants citizens a sense of safety, which translates into stability.

Previously, law enforcement with few exceptions did not have to think much about what sort of data to collect, since surveillance resources were limited and had to be used in a directed fashion to be effective at all. Nowadays, as China is demonstrating with their extensive camera coverage and social credit system, the boundaries of state knowledge seem out of sight.

Though it is easy to criticize China for their in many ways immoral social credit system, simultaneously they are doing pioneer work in modern law enforcement by exploring extreme surveillance. Western nations will soon also face questions of when and where to install cameras, under which conditions to perform facial recognition, and which social spheres law enforcement may inspect.

Theoretically, a perfectly just government could collect all the data it wanted and use it sensibly, but since data persists, even if we had such a perfect state, successive governments could misuse extensive citizen profiles to establish an authoritarian regime, for example through tailored propaganda and selective law enforcement.

In conclusion, maximal security implies stagnation of societal development, while maximal privacy gives rise to unlimited crime. How much information can the state be trusted with? Where do you draw the line? Is there already a consensus out there for where the line should be drawn?

  • 2
    I would note that, to an extent, privacy/freedom vs security has always been a debate, and indeed is one of the axis along which to judge candidates/parties when they present their programs in western democracies. Dec 31 '18 at 20:09
  • 1
    If people were wary of these issues, everyone would use communications methods with nigh-unbreakable encryption, which are easily available these days through apps like Signal or Telegram. Then the governments could store nothing as they couldn't decrypt anything. Jan 1 '19 at 0:46
  • Also, keep in mind that "security" means "the continued existence of the state". Individuals may benefit from the state, but that is by no means guaranteed. Jan 1 '19 at 4:39
  • Part of the problem is defining "privacy" and in particular "privacy" vs "secrecy". When I go to the toilet, I close the door. It's not a secret what I'm doing, but I prefer not to be observed while I'm doing it.
    – pinoyyid
    Jan 1 '19 at 5:46
  • I would argue that privacy vs. security is a fallacious framing. Solitary confinement is high in both security and privacy. Naked and alone with an unlocked device in a high-crime area is low in both security and privacy (odd example, but you get the point). Privacy and security need to be defined for this question, but security is often an essential prerequisite for privacy (e.g., end-to-end encryption). As you note, once collected, data is ripe for abuse, so collection theoretically should be the minimum necessary for any given well-justified security objective (ditto for data retention).
    – pseudon
    Jan 1 '19 at 18:11

There is no consensus.

Not even among the so-called Western nations, and certainly not beyond that.

  • Many countries use double standards for their own citizens (or residents) and those of other nations. One group is protected by their constitution, the other isn't.
  • Some countries are making distinctions between the content of communication and the metadata (who, when, were, to whom, ...) with metadata getting less protection than the content. This allows extensive profiling of the users which was not possible a few decades ago.
  • Some countries are extending the protection of paper mail and telephones to email, messengers, and voice-over-IP. This is not always a good fit, e.g. when a mail is saved on a computer.
  • 6
    In general whenever the question is "is there international consensus" the answer is no. Jan 1 '19 at 1:06
  • Of course, there can never be unanimous agreement on any fundamental matter, at least due to the ambiguity of language. However, I would consider something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be enough of a concensus to call it one. Jan 2 '19 at 15:07

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