Privacy rights and public safety (Boston Globe; reg. req’d)

By David Cohen and Kathy Glick-Weil | February 16, 2006

SOMETHING HAPPENED in Newton recently that should be reassuring to us all. We found that we were able to protect public safety without having to sacrifice the privacy of law-abiding Newton citizens.

We did this by requiring the FBI to follow the law and obtain a warrant before accessing library computers believed to be used in e-mailing a threat to Brandeis University.

By requiring a warrant, we ensured that the FBI received the information it needed to pursue the perpetrator of a serious crime, while ensuring that the information of the other law-abiding users of those same computers was kept private. This is precisely how the American system of justice is meant to work.

The events in Newton appear to have struck a chord with people, considering all of the discussion it has generated. We have heard from hundreds of people from across the country, many of them pleased with our actions, some of them expressing outrage. We have been the subject of several talk-radio programs, local and national television news stories, newspaper articles, and opinion editorials. Again, some praising us, some deriding us.

Let us say, in no uncertain terms, that our insistence on a warrant did not put public safety at risk. If the federal authorities needed immediate access to those computers to protect people’s safety, the FBI and US attorney’s office would have cited their specific authority to take them without a warrant, and we would have cooperated fully. At no time did these agencies indicate that this was necessary.

It should also be noted that city officials, contrary to being ”uncooperative” with federal authorities as was sometimes reported, worked with the FBI by preserving the crime scene and by making the library’s computer personnel and staff available to ensure that authorities had instant access to the information they needed as soon as the warrant was obtained.

We are at a precipitous time in our nation’s history. The United States has taken the leading role in the fight against terrorism, and in doing so has heightened our national awareness of our potential vulnerabilities.

Since the devastating attack on the World Trade Center buildings, we have reorganized the federal government and reallocated our resources. We have changed how we travel, attend events, and in many ways how we live our lives. We have made prudent and sensible changes to enhance our safety and security. While the benefits of these changes are clear, we must also be forthright about the costs these changes have brought to bear as well.

There are those who believe that all security measures trump privacy rights. There are just as many people who believe the loss of our right to privacy at the hands of law enforcement is unconscionable. But what we can all be hopeful about is that we do not have to sacrifice one to preserve the other.

America has always been the land of the free, and our freedom has indeed come with a cost. But we must never forget what Benjamin Franklin put so eloquently: ”They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The question before us today is nothing less than this: Can we expect law enforcement agencies to respect privacy rights while they fight the war on terror? At a time when Congress is debating the president’s power to wiretap without judicial approval, the time to answer this question is now. And if the incident in Newton is any indication, the answer is yes.

David Cohen is the mayor of Newton. Kathy Glick-Weil is director of the Newton Free Library.

[via Lisnews]