In the last Republican presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses, Gov. Chris Christie was asked about the terror shootings in San Bernardino, Calif.
Neighbors said they saw packages delivered to the home of the murderers in the weeks prior to the killings. Should they have called the police?
Yes, the New Jersey Republican replied. “You see something that’s suspicious, you call law enforcement and let law enforcement make those decisions,” he said.
Christie’s campaign sputtered to a stop just a few weeks later, so his views got less attention than they may have deserved. But they reflect a difficult issue: how can we balance safety with privacy? And who gets to decide where the scales tip?
Let’s say the killers’ neighbors knew guns were being delivered to the home. And let’s say some of those neighbors knew the couple had disparaged the government in conversations and on social media.
Common sense suggests those neighbors should call the authorities. Yet that’s clear only in hindsight. It isn’t illegal to buy guns, or have them, and it’s certainly not illegal to criticize the government on social media.
If the police are asked to investigate every gun owner or cranky Facebooker, they’re going to be pretty busy.
Some have suggested the religion of the San Bernardino suspects tips the balance in favor of a phone call, and official intervention. That seems off-base, too. It isn’t illegal to be a Muslim.
Christie’s advice is to make the call anyway, and let authorities decide what is and isn’t actionable. He’s a former prosecutor, so that view is predictable.
But privacy experts worry his approach would let police and prosecutors rummage around your phone, your computer, your home and workplace, all because someone thinks you might be out of line.
Against that background, the government and Apple are now fiercely arguing over access to one of the San Bernardino killer’s smartphones. Authorities think there may be information embedded in the phone that could lead them to other alleged conspirators, while Apple worries it will eventually have to hand over the keys to all its digital devices.
Soon — sooner than we may be ready for — we’ll have to decide which side is right. This year’s presidential election seems like a good place to start.
Perhaps the FBI agrees. In a statement Sunday, director James Comey called for a conversation about the balance between security and liberty.
“We have awesome new technology that creates a serious tension between two values we all treasure — privacy and safety,” he wrote.
“That tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates for a living. It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before.”
Sounds about right.