"Data Mining and the Security-Liberty Debate"

Good paper: “Data Mining and the Security-Liberty Debate,” by Daniel J. Solove.

Abstract: In this essay, written for a symposium on surveillance for the University of Chicago Law Review, I examine some common difficulties in the way that liberty is balanced against security in the context of data mining. Countless discussions about the trade-offs between security and liberty begin by taking a security proposal and then weighing it against what it would cost our civil liberties. Often, the liberty interests are cast as individual rights and balanced against the security interests, which are cast in terms of the safety of society as a whole. Courts and commentators defer to the government’s assertions about the effectiveness of the security interest. In the context of data mining, the liberty interest is limited by narrow understandings of privacy that neglect to account for many privacy problems. As a result, the balancing concludes with a victory in favor of the security interest. But as I argue, important dimensions of data mining’s security benefits require more scrutiny, and the privacy concerns are significantly greater than currently acknowledged. These problems have undermined the balancing process and skewed the results toward the security side of the scale.

My only complaint: it’s not a liberty vs. security debate. Liberty is security. It’s a liberty vs. control debate.

Posted on June 12, 2007 at 7:11 AM16 Comments


Andre LePlume June 12, 2007 7:48 AM

He may have used the term in the “he who would give up liberty in the name of security” sense, Bruce.

Clive Robinson June 12, 2007 8:02 AM


“My only complaint: it’s not a liberty vs. security debate. Liberty is security. It’s a liberty vs. control debate.”

How about Liberty vs Tax Raising?

In the U.K. the Govermnet made an anouncment that Shop Loyalty card DBs would in future be used to assess property tax levels in areas…

How long before the same data is used to say, Sorry in 2001 you bought one to many cans of beer / ice lollies / cream cakes / packets of cigerets / etc / etc therefore you are not entitles to the health care you have been paying for through your taxes for the last thirty years or so?

There is more to liberty than the freedom to live in peace.

dlg June 12, 2007 8:20 AM


I don’t think you can uphold the phrase “Liberty is security” for long. Even though you might mean the right thing, I don’t think many will take the time to look past the more superficial contradictions.

Liberty is not security. Indeed, security is a prerequisite for many aspects of negative liberty (as understood by Isaiah Berlin), ie the “freedom from” (opression, crime, etc.). In that sense you could say “security is a prerequisite for liberty” which is what law and order people usually do (… hence we have to increase security and only worry about liberty once we have (perfect) security…). I don’t think that’s what you’re trying to say.

As you have often pointed out, liberty in a political sense, in form of checks and balances as well as accountability (enforced through elections) increases security. It (in theory) prevents abuse of power and incompetence to negatively impact our lives. In that sense, some aspects of liberty are instrumental to security.

So, yes, liberty and security are closely related, even, in a moderate setting, positively correlated (in contradiction to the balancing argument). However, simply equating the two terms is more confusing than enlightning.

Jay74 June 12, 2007 8:43 AM

What Bruce mostl ikely means is that you can’t have one without the other. You if you don’t have liberty you are never secure from the government, and if you don’t have security you never have liberty from the thugs (basically, it would be survival of the fittest).

Neal Lester June 12, 2007 9:10 AM

I would be interested in Bruce’s thoughts on the application of data mining to epidemiology. The potential benefits are huge. Unlike the security application, being able to trace information back to a specific person is not necessary for the project’s success. However, a large number of researchers would need access to a very data set. The question is, can the risk of inadvertent information disclosure or data theft be reduced to an acceptably low level?

guvn'r June 12, 2007 9:32 AM

“…it’s not a liberty vs. security debate. Liberty is security. It’s a liberty vs. control debate.”

more precisely, it’s a locus of control debate. It’s about controlling others, so that they don’t control you.

Or it’s about others trying to control you to their own ends.

Liberty is about controlling yourself, which isn’t always suitable to the others seeking to control you, be they Al-Qaeda or Alberto Gonzales.

Walt Kelly had it right, “we have met the enemy and he is us”…

Carlo Graziani June 12, 2007 9:34 AM

A beautiful paper. The money quote, to me is:

“The very point of protecting liberty is to demand that sacrifices to liberty are not in vain and that security interests, which compromise civil liberties, are sufficiently effective to warrant the cost.”

The commissars in charge of the U.S. governent are intellectually incapable of even understanding the point of this basic cost-benefit analysis, and their securocratic flunkies and dittohead cheerleaders actively pour scorn on the very notion. But taking this kind of balance seriously is perhaps the most basic and important of constitutional duties in a modern democracy. The contempt in which it is currently held by government is a growing and entrenching menace to our most basic political principles, the ones that make the country worth defending in the first place.

The one element I thought was missing from the paper is a discussion of the false-positive threat from “bobbing for terrorists”-style datamining, and the likelihood that some non-terrorist individual whose records pop a trigger in the software will have enough other circumstantial suspicious factors attending his travel, his friends, his finances, his worship, etc. to get the FBI to trip him up. It’s not as if they need to build actual legal cases against suspects any more…

elamb June 12, 2007 9:52 AM

liberity is security..

I suppose we are steadily defining what “liberity” is. It seems to be very closely tied to allowing and trusting people to manage themselves to some degree.

Looking at the situation in Iraq, I can see Bruce’s point. If the Iraqi’s have been “liberated” then that is the type of freedom I could personally do without. I mean, I sometimes complain about my own civil liberties being stepped on, but in Iraq people can barely walk down the street. Security and Liberty are closely woven together, but must be balanced.

Brandioch Conner June 12, 2007 11:02 AM

Liberty is Security.

Just look at the history of the most repressive governments.

Can you say that their citizens had any more security than the citizens of the Free governments?

All they had was the knowledge that IF they were victims of a crime THEN it was more likely that the criminal was an agent of the government.

StatistPresumption June 12, 2007 12:01 PM

“Liberty is security.”

Wow. If Bruce really believes this, and moreover if he believes that security is liberty, it explains why his analyses of economic and political issues is so often flawed.

Big disclosure, potentially. Let’s wait and see if he recants, or clarifies.

X the Unknown June 12, 2007 2:35 PM

@elamb: “Looking at the situation in Iraq, I can see Bruce’s point. If the Iraqi’s have been “liberated” then that is the type of freedom I could personally do without.”

Unfortunately, the people of Iraq have explicitly NOT been liberated. They are subject to the arbitrary rules and “laws” of various local militias and religious fanatics.

The lack of an officially-recognized (and effective) government does not mean that there is no government – the power-vacuum always gets filled (often by some sort of quasi-feudal criminal hierarchy). If people don’t have an active role in determining how that power-vacuum is filled, they usually end up with some sort of oppressive regime bent on exploiting the masses.

Anonymous June 12, 2007 2:40 PM

—Can you say that their citizens had any more security than the citizens of the Free governments?—

I remember that during the deep cold war days it was assumed that there was less crime behind the Iron Curtain because of the authoritarian state. As it turned out, they had plenty of crime, but as a totalitarian state they had complete control of the reporting.

X the Unknown June 12, 2007 2:55 PM

“Liberty is Security”

Well, in the big picture (e.g. historically), I think I have to agree with this. For the vast majority of people throughout the ages, the biggest oppressor and general threat to their ongoing security (other than natural forces, like disease) has been their official government.

Governments clearly have a tendency to stratify society, restricting both physical mobility and social mobility. They also have a tendency to strongly restrict the ability of the populace from protecting themselves.

The ability to either personally defend myself, or to collaborate with my neighbors in some form of mutual-defense (VERY local and locally-controlled police) is obviously a very key security concern. Response-time to an incident is critical – 15 minutes is far too long.

The ability to control access to and usage of “my property” is a key security concern. Governments start by insisting that ulimate control rests with them…then the start “farming out” elements of my property. This includes imposing often arbitrary taxes for mere existence, seizing properties and chattels (eminent domain, drug-related property seizures), and controlling my very identity (Social Security Number, which has been “farmed out” to almost everybody as an ID).

About the only true Security Service that a typical National Government offers is an army to resist invasion…and even there, they do it by insisting that the general populace put themselves at risk by joining the army, and frequently use the army in acts of aggression, rather than defense.

Now, I’m not by any means an Anarchist. As I indicated in a previous post, I believe that a power-vacuum will quickly be filled by some form of :”government” if an effective one doesn’t exist. I do feel, however, that whatever government is formed should explicitly serve the people (not on a platter), and should be closely restricted in the powers it is allowed to exercise. That is pretty much the model the U.S.A. was created on.

When such a government begins arrogating new powers unto itself, and deliberately subverting or outright violating the fundamental terms of its existence, it it time to look very closely at restructuring, or even replacing, that government. Fascism arises all too easily, and the much-touted “security” of a fascist society is a complete illusion.

Ralph June 12, 2007 5:36 PM

“Liberty is Security”

It’s a good message, I like it a lot.

Anything can be misunderstood if you try hard enough – so what.

Let him with ears hear.

shanna brooks June 20, 2007 3:55 PM

it is lovely but it needs to be longer if you are going to wright more make it way longer o.k o.k nice biered and nice gray heir. in a good why not a bad why

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.