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The right to be let alone, as Louis Brandeis and his law partner Samuel Warren so famously defined the right of privacy, expresses an idea that is profoundly and authentically American. After all, we all tend to bristle at the notion that someone, whether it is big government, big business, or just a nosy neighbor, might be eavesdropping on our phone calls, or browsing through our medical records, or sniggering over the movies we rent at the video store. And even the most priggish Clinton hater ought to be able to understand why the president might feel a bit aggrieved to discover that an intern has been yakking about their sexual adventures to someone who first rigs a homemade tap on her phone and then puts on a wire to go to lunch. "No one needs to read a book-let alone a philosophical tract or an extensive policy analysis- to be reminded that the right to be let alone is much cherished," allows Amitai Etzioni in The Limits of Privacy, and that "without privacy no society can long remain free." Yet Etzioni insists on presenting us with "the other side of the privacy equation." His book is a well-argued brief in favor of the proposition that the right of privacy ought not to be regarded as something sacred and thus inviolable. Privacy and public interest exist in a state of constant tension, Etzioni suggests, and sometimes "the common good entails violating privacy." The flash points between privacy and public safety can be spotted all over the landscape-- drug testing in the schools and the workplace, sobriety checkpoints on the streets and highways, surveillance cameras in parking lots and shopping malls. For his purposes, Etzioni focuses on four specific examples of the friction between privacy and public interest, including the testing of infants for HIV, the various "Megan's Laws" that alert the public to the presence of sex offenders in their communities, the right of the government to decode encrypted messages on the Internet and other media, and the use of identification cards and "biometric identifiers" such as voice recognition and "eyeprints," all of which Etzioni finds to be acceptable intrusions into the realm of privacy when a justifiable public interest is served.
Etzioni's presentation is deft and disciplined, his reasoning straightforward and plainspoken. He holds himself to a high standard of intellectual honesty, always crediting the arguments that can be made against the positions he is advocating. His book is largely free of the "spin" that has so corrupted public discourse in America, and his advocacy is only strengthened as a result of his candor and clarity. "To reconceptualize privacy, a highly revered right, may seem offensive, almost sacrilegious," he is willing to concede. "However, in the wake of the rise of radical individualism between 1960 and the 1990s, a new conception of privacy is called for, one that does not privilege privacy over the common good but rather is open to balance with concerns for social responsibilities." It is also true, however, that Etzioni has chosen case studies that tend to play on conscience and sentiment, fear and passion. The testing of newborns for HIV, which also reveals whether the mother is HIV-positive, surely invades the mother's privacy, but it, may also save the life of a baby. "Megan's Laws" may expose an offender who has already served his sentence to lifelong public shame, but it also holds out the prospect of protecting innocent young children from sexual predators.
Even though he is a sociologist rather than a lawyer, Etzioni strides confidently into the thickets of constitutional law, and he invokes the Fourth Amendment to justify his proposals for "reconceptualizing" the right of privacy. Dismissing what he calls "the amalgam of various constitutional rights" that provide the fuzzy theoretical underpinnings of the right of privacy in cases dealing with "reproductive choice," Etzioni prefers the balancing tests that he finds in search-and-seizure cases, in which privacy is weighed against "the common good" and sometimes found wanting.
Etzioni's message is not always honored in his own country, but he does not seem to care that his ideas may be unfashionable. Remarkably, the nay-saying of his critics even shows up in the blurbs that are being circulated by his publisher to promote the book. The ubiquitous Alan M. Dershowitz, for example, is quoted in the publicity release from Basic Books as calling The Limits of Privacy a "must-read," but he is also allowed to voice a dissenting opinion on Etzioni's call for a balance between privacy and the public interest: "I quarrel," quips Dershowitz, "with the weight of the communitarian thumb he places on the scale."
The core of Etzioni's argument is so reasonable that it is ultimately hard to resist: We err when we sacralize the right of privacy to the exclusion of common sense, and we ought to entertain at least the idea that invasion of privacy by government is sometimes the lesser of two evils. After all, the Branch Davidians just wanted to be left alone, too. Although he is quick to invoke the common good and the communitarian principle, Etzioni's best argument is based on an appeal to the individual reader's empathy: Would you be willing to sacrifice some measure of privacy to frustrate a terrorist who seeks to bomb a public building or to protect a child from a sexual predator who seeks to rape and kill her? Not many of us would say no, or so Etzioni assumes, and I think he is right.