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Security's double-bind

Published October 16. 2013 4:00AM

Terror attacks cause both immediate and long-term harm.

First comes destruction and sometimes death, followed inevitably by a government crackdown that invades privacy, restricts freedom or otherwise interferes with the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness promised all Americans by the Declaration of Independence.

Most citizens do not strenuously object to Transportation Security Administration screenings at airports imposed after 9/11, and willingly comply with rules against carrying backpacks at crowded public events in the wake of last April's Boston Marathon bombings.

But attitudes shift when it comes to government agents reading personal emails or monitoring private phone conversations to gain insights into possible or perceived terror activity.

To privacy advocates, such actions invoke "Big Brother" intrusiveness described so presciently in George Orwell's "1984" - to which security-conscious citizens typically reply, "It's only a problem if you have something to hide."

These conflicting sentiments will be the topic of a forum tonight at the Waterford Public Library titled "Privacy v. Security - Our Right to Know?" The 7 p.m. program, open to the public, will include panelists Jonathan Manes, who teaches in the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School that promotes lawsuits seeking to obtain disclosure of court opinions on the National Security Administration's programs; former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons of Stonington, who served on the Congressional Select Committee on Intelligence; and Sandra Staub, legal director of the state's American Civil Liberties Union.

The forum is especially timely considering recent disclosures brought out by Edward Snowden's explosive NSA surveillance leaks, and the issue remains divisive considering some people regard Mr. Snowden, now under federal indictment and living in exile in Russia, as a hero, while others want to see him punished as a traitor.

While tonight's forum is intended to focus on the government's activities with regard to privacy, this newspaper also hopes it includes discussion of various practices and new policies carried out by such companies as Google and Facebook that users of social media might find disturbing. Some of these issues are described on this page in an opinion piece by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera.

For better or worse we live in a world filled with security cameras, recording devices and monitors that can intercept messages between private citizens.

We applaud when a photo taken by a bank security camera helps apprehend a robber, and express gratified relief when government investigators hack the email account of and infiltrate a terror cell before it can carry out an attack, but then demand reforms against such surveillance when "spies" gain access to too much personal information.

Given these conflicting views, tonight's forum should be lively.

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