Etzioni calls for limits on privacy

Do we need to rethink our approach to the right to privacy? Should the common good play a bigger role in our handling of privacy issues?

Yes and yes, says noted social thinker Amitai Etzioni.

Perhaps you should rethink the questions, said a panel of Penn professors.

Etzioni, University Professor of Sociology at George Washington University, and his friendly critics from Penn met at a Wharton School forum March 17 to discuss his new book, "The Limits of Privacy."

All of the five panelists involved - Wharton Ethics Program Director Tom Donaldson; Law Professor Anita Allen-Castelito; Lauder Institute Director Steve Kobrin; Political Science Professor Ian Lustick, and Assistant Professor Pamela Sankar of the Center for Bioethics - agreed with one of Etzioni's main points: in a good society, no one value can stand privileged above all others, and that tradeoffs are necessary to protect both individuals and the larger society.

Where the panelists did disagree was whether Etzioni's assessment of the current state of affairs was on target.

Etzioni began his remarks by noting that by nature, talk of rights leaves no room for compromise. Instead, he suggested that speaking in terms of values or interests was more productive.

As he put it, "It really comes down to who you fear most. If you fear most the FBI, you talk about rights; if you fear most the Mafia, you talk about public good and public safety. I think we should be concerned about both."

He then touched on the five policy issues he studied in his book, which center around access to medical and criminal records and the power of electronic snooping.

He found that in four of the five issues, including "Megan's Laws," excessive concern for privacy has prevented the spread of approaches that advance the common good.

But the tracking of personal data by companies seeking to profit from it was probably the greatest privacy threat today. "There's no question in my mind that in the U.S. now, it's clearly a greater threat," he said in a post-forum interview.

Especially frightening to him were recently-revealed instructions embedded in Intel microprocessors and Microsoft Windows that track what users do with their computers and files.

"It's not only the Microsoft/Intel software that controls not only what you do, but how you think," he said. "It's [also] that everything the private sector manufactures that way is available to the government."

He stressed that any attempts to promote the common good or safety should protect privacy as much as possible.

But Donaldson had trouble with the phrase "common good." The government of Singapore justifies its authoritarian policies in this fashion, he said.

And Allen-Castellito noted that, contrary to what the rhetoric suggests, tradeoffs between the public interest and personal liberty are being made all the time. "You'll find the high rhetoric in the constitutional law cases, where the courts will say 'privacy is sacred,' and on the next page the courts will start balancing away the privacy rights of various people," she said.

Lustick likewise thought that the privacy/community split was a false dichotomy. He added that though Etzioni's remarks suggested a willingness to tolerate overly broad scrutiny, he too really wanted to err on the side of privacy in addressing legitimate public concerns.

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Originally published on April 1, 1999