Kirby: Privacy less important when we feel we're in danger

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The debate over whether NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden did the right thing in revealing government secrets has me coming down squarely on both sides of the issue.

I think it took a lot of guts to take on the government like that — and I think he compromised national security.

The problem here is that I'm morally flexible. Virtually all of my ethics and principles can be compromised depending on how safe I feel at the moment.

For example, state-sponsored torture. I don't believe the government should be torturing suspected terrorists to prevent further attacks. Hooking even bad people up to a field generator is just plain wrong. Sort of.

This is a marvelously easy position to hold because it doesn't really affect me in a specific way. It's too general. I don't know anyone killed by a terrorist or anyone in a holding pen at Guantanamo Bay.

On the other hand, if one of my grandchildren was missing and you were being coy with information that would lead to her safe return, me and a bucket of water would be finding out how fast you could learn to breathe through your butt.

There's a huge difference between me doing this to you myself and the government presuming to do it on my behalf; though that's probably not a distinction you would care to make while trying to establish an airway between your hams.

Suppose it's not a physical violation but rather just a violation of privacy. Would I spy on people to discover what they were doing in order to protect me and mine? Yeah. So would you.

Perhaps a test. What if you discovered evidence that your mother was cheating on your father? Would you tell him? What if you didn't like him?

What if you just suspected it was happening? Would you try to ascertain it by eavesdropping on phone conversations between your mom and Fabio? Would love for Dad lessen Mom's right to privacy. More to the point, is it really your business?

How about a friend who knew whether your spouse was cheating on you? Should they tell you? If they were able to do so, would you want them tapping a phone or hacking an email to find out?

Now let's widen the scope. Would you spy on ALL your friends to find out which one of them was stealing from you or molesting your child? Would I? Yes.

Like I said, there's a big difference between the government invading people's privacy to protect everyone, and you and I doing it to protect ourselves. It's all relative to the danger we feel.

Is it fair that Big Brother looks over everyone's shoulder in order to protect us? It depends almost entirely on how threatened you feel. Because I doubt terrorists are installing a bomb in my neighborhood right now, my answer would be a firm "no."

The grocery store where I shop in Herriman is installing security cameras. Before long my freedom to shoplift and go to the store in my pajamas will be heavily monitored. Good thing I already don't care.

Much of the current debate stems from the fact that we're in a state of transition regarding our privacy. Most of us can remember when there weren't monitoring devices everywhere. That's why we feel uneasy about the growing number of them.

Will our great-grandchildren be bothered by the fact that they have less privacy than we did? My guess is that it will depend on how safe they feel — and who they're afraid of most by then.

Robert Kirby can be reached at or