Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Sunday, October 23, 2016

The pilot who crashed the Germanwings plane, taking 150 lives, was too ill to work, according to doctors’ notes found at his home. But Germany’s strict medical privacy laws barred the doctors from conveying that judgment to the airline.

A horrific event that could have been averted with a sharing of information happened because of laws designed to protect privacy. As typically occurs in such cases, the same public that supported such laws turns around and asks, Why didn’t the authorities know?

It’s really hard to get an intelligent conversation going about the balance between privacy and security. Posturing over government intrusion into our personal lives blossoms at times of calm and then wilts when terrorists hijack the headlines.

Not long ago, privacy advocates were inflaming the public over the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. In doing so, they often exploit the public’s confusion on what information is collected.

Last October, CNN anchor Carol Costello grilled Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, on NSA spying activities, in an exchange that indicated she didn’t quite know what metadata is. As Coats tried to explain, metadata is information about numbers we call (the date, time and duration of each call) — not what was said in the calls.

That’s what the government computers track. If they flag a worrisome pattern, a court must grant permission for a human being to listen in on the content.

Another tactic of the program’s critics is to point to every terrible thing that happens as evidence the program doesn’t work. “It didn’t stop Americans from being beheaded,” Costello said.

No, the NSA didn’t stop radical groups from kidnapping Americans in Middle Eastern war zones and executing them in their cruel way. It can’t stop every terrorist outrage in the world, including in Boston. But it has been credited with uncovering plots to wreak havoc.

The grownup question is, where do we draw the line between our right to privacy and our desire to be protected?

Should we care if a government computer collects the metadata on all our calls? I don’t. The phone company has that information. As for noting the websites we visit, Google knows all about that.

Sure, metadata can provide clues on one’s interests — say, searches on a disease or visits to pornography sites. A rogue NSA worker might tap this information for illegal purposes, but there’s been scant evidence that such abuse has occurred, the hyperbolic charges notwithstanding.

Recall the furor in France after Edward Snowden released stolen documents describing the NSA surveillance programs. Now, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, French leaders are proposing an NSA-style program that would let their country’s intelligence agencies do similar sweeps of metadata.

Recall the anger in Germany over the Snowden revelations. The CIA’s top official there was expelled. And President Obama had to apologize for American monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, something we should not have done.

But now, when so many German citizens are joining radical groups in Syria — nine so far have participated in suicide attacks — the German government is more tied into American intelligence than it was before. After all, the U.S. is the only country to track foreign fighters crossing into Syria.

In the U.S., the horror of the beheadings has caused public protests against U.S. spying programs to rapidly face. Our society seems especially vulnerable to the hurt inflicted by terrorism; witness the attention paid the Boston Marathon bombing trial — a relatively small attack by the standards of modern terrorism.

The next time something gruesome happens, expect to hear, “Why didn’t they stop that?” To say we can be secure without giving up some privacy is child’s talk.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

  • charleo1

    The grownup question is, where do we draw the line between our Right to privacy, and
    our desire to be protected? A problematic question for a generation of Americans that’s really not very grown up. Because, we’ve never really had to grow up worrying about our security. In a Country we assumed was protected by the strongest military in the World, and by geography. We became a generation fond of bravely spouting platitudes like, “those who would exchange their liberty for security, deserve neither.” Unable to imagine the difficulty such a choice actually posed, if the abstract, were ever to become a reality. Then, quite unexpectedly, on the morning of September 11, 2001, it did. And our World changed forever. And so did our ideas about the location of that line between our Right to privacy, and our desire to be protected. And in this apex of our deepest fears, we demanded protection. The very thing we had previously said we’d rather sacrifice. Reasoning, what value is liberty to the dead? We have children! Did Ben Franklin have children? No he did not! Were terrorists even a problem back then? Then, some of the initial apprehension started to wear off. As most of our fears about multiple attacks happening in malls, and airports, and more planes being flown into more skyscrapers in more cities, never materialized. And once again, as our nerve returned, we started to be concerned about the power we might have inadvertently placed in the hands of our Government. And about the sacrifice of privacy, and the price we might have foolishly paid for our protection, under such duress. And also like all children of war, we find we’re older, and more wary than we were before. More chastened, hopefully wiser, and more appreciative of how easily poor choices can be made out of fear. And too, how profound, and difficult to live up to that immortal line contained in our own National Anthem. “Ore the Land of the Free, and The Home of the Brave!”

    • Bill Thompson

      Using fear to control the masses is as old as religion itself. The attacks on our country played right into the hands of the military industrial complex and major corporations. The response from our “leaders” was to exacerbate the fears, not diminish them. Winston Churchill said all we have to fear was fear itself as bombs rain down on Great Britain. Winston Churchill empowered his people which is exactly what should have been done in the United States at our time of peril. Instead the Bush Cheney administration used the opportunity for profit and prolonged political power.
      I was there that day the towers fell I was working construction at the federal reserve a few hundred yards away. I heard the engines rev and I heard the enormous crash shortly after I saw the towers come down. I walked out in the pitch darkness towards the river the skies began to lighten. I then walked uptown where the Beekman hospital was right below the Brooklyn Bridge they were asking for volunteers. I took them up on the offer unfortunately the only people coming in to be treated were people with Lung and eye issues everyone else was dead.
      I tell you my tail only because what I wanted to hear from Pres. Bush was words like Winston Churchill. I wanted president Bush to deputize the country and quill the fears not use the situation for profit and gain. In my opinion his church service and fear mongering were disgusting. Terrorism requires two things terrorist and the terrorized the United States of America has been thoroughly terrorized, for profit.