Security versus Privacy: Reframing the Debate

12 Pages Posted: 4 Mar 2012

See all articles by Shaun B. Spencer

Shaun B. Spencer

University of Massachusetts School of Law - Dartmouth

Date Written: 2002


This essay explores several dimensions of the debate between security and privacy that accompanies many anti-terrorism and law enforcement proposals. The debate is often framed, either implicitly or explicitly, as a balancing of the tangible harms that a security proposal would prevent, against the intangible harms that an intrusion on privacy would cause. This approach presents the choice between, for example, the disastrous effects of a terrorist airline hijacking, and the relatively minor feeling of discomfort that might flow from presenting a national ID card before boarding. Given those limited choices, what right-thinking person would not choose the latter? This framework of balancing tangible against intangible harms is not merely a rhetorical strategy selected by the proponents of security measures. It is also a way of understanding the debate that flows naturally from the perception that privacy is a mere abstraction, a luxury with little concrete value.

This essay focuses on three ways in which the tangible-versus-intangible decision making framework both overvalues security and undervalues privacy. First, the framework is incomplete because it fails to account for the many unintended consequences that usually flow from security measures. The cumulative effect of those unintended consequences gradually erodes society's very conception of privacy. Yet the tangible-versus-intangible framework implicitly focuses on short-term benefits and consequences, necessarily excluding the long-term effects on privacy.

Second, the contextual specificity that characterizes the tangible-versus- intangible framework overemphasizes the harms on the tangible side of the scale. By embedding the choice between security and privacy in a concrete factual context (such as boarding a plane), the framework all but guarantees that people will decide to guard against the tangible harms.

Finally, the framework draws a false distinction between tangible breaches of security and intangible intrusions on privacy. In fact, the tangible results that security proposals promise are often empirically suspect. Instead, security proposals serve largely intangible goals, such as allaying people's fears. In contrast, privacy intrusions can have quite tangible consequences that disrupt and inhibit social behavior.

Suggested Citation

Spencer, Shaun B., Security versus Privacy: Reframing the Debate (2002). Denver University Law Review, Vol. 79, No. 4, p. 519, 2002, Available at SSRN:

Shaun B. Spencer (Contact Author)

University of Massachusetts School of Law - Dartmouth ( email )

333 Faunce Corner Road
North Dartmouth, MA 02747-1252
United States
508-985-1192 (Phone)

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