Ever since the recent revelations that the NSA surveillance program is watching everything you do, a certain founding father has been getting a lot of press. I’m talking about Benjamin Franklin and his famous quote of “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”. This is a very eloquent quote, but unfortunately, it’s completely irrelevant in the year 2013.
I could spend this entire article pointing out, as others have, that you give up essential liberties all the time for temporary safety. Like being forced to wear a seatbelt (who are you to tell me that I have to be restrained in my own car?!) or going through security at an airport (you want to see my ID, scan my body & look through my bags just to stop somebody from blowing up my plane? – How dare you!). But I’d rather point out how backwards it is to rely on the logic of Benjamin Franklin in modern times.
First of all, I’ve seen multiple versions of this meme posted on Facebook a few million times recently. Does anyone else see the irony of debating your privacy on Facebook?! Facebook runs facial recognition software and has access to your entire life because you voluntarily threw your privacy out the window when you signed up for it… and you didn’t do that to stop any terrorist attacks, you did it so you could connect with old classmates and co-workers!
Secondly, please keep in mind that Benjamin Franklin lived in a time when “discovering” electricity was a new thing. He couldn’t conceive of a nuclear weapon or a bio-terrorism attack let alone consider the ethics and benefits of data mining to save lives. Benjamin Franklin was a smart man, but he didn’t invent the crystal ball and could not even begin to fathom the complicated topic of security vs. privacy in the 21st century.
But if you think his wisdom of the 1700’s still applies today, then perhaps we should ask Ben Franklin about other current topics like race relations and specifically about the Trayvon Martin case… here’s how I imagine that interview would go…
Reporter: “Recently an adult man named George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin and was acquitted of any wrongdoing in his death… what are your thoughts on this complicated case Mr. Franklin?”
Ben Franklin: “Well, as a slave owner, I hope this Zimmerman guy paid reparations to the owner of Trayvon Martin. This would truly be a sad story if those fields went unplowed because a slave was killed for no reason.”
Reporter: “Wow, what you just said is highly offensive! We outlawed slavery a long time ago!!!”
Ben Franklin: “Then why would you ask me about it?? I come from a completely different time! You should talk to the head of the well-regulated militia that George Zimmerman must be a part of to have that gun! That’s still the rule, right?”
Obviously we couldn’t take Ben’s opinion on race relations in modern times, so why do we assume his opinion on liberty & security would be any different? The issue of security vs. privacy is a complicated topic that deserves an open discussion, but we have to be realistic about it. It’s just naïve to think that you can have total privacy in this international digital age, especially when you consider how much privacy you voluntarily give up & all the benefits you enjoy from being “on the grid”. So if you insist on using a Benjamin Franklin quote for the current NSA controversy, try this one: “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to stay stupid”.