The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects U.S. citizens from unreasonable search and seizure of property by the government; but legal analysts, government leaders and big data experts disagree on what words Privacy_Security_Screening_at_the_Denver_Airport like unreasonable and seizure mean in the context of the sharable digital age and the modern security threats that loom in an open society. As Forbes contributing writer Larry Downes points out, “If you are holding a loud conversation in a public place, it isn’t reasonable for you to expect privacy, and the police can take advantage of whatever information they overhear.”

This amendment took center stage after Britain’s Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post revealed to the public — based on the leak of classified information — that the NSA continues to monitor domestic communications as part of lawful surveillance activity to identify and stop future terrorist attacks. This activity been going on for nearly 12 years with bipartisan support, in all three branches of government, throughout most of the last four presidential terms.

Our not-so-secret society

Seems like our governing leaders know something that the rest of us don’t. Maybe that’s because Americans are just too busy sharing details about themselves through their mobile devices. A study by Experian, a consumer and business credit reporting company, indicates that Americans spend 16 minutes of every hour online on social media networking sites — more time than reading news or entertainment sites and more time overall than any other country’s citizens.

So anyone who’s surprised and upset about learning that the text, images, videos and other content that they choose to share online is potentially accessible as part of a database somewhere should take a page from the mobster’s playbook: Get off the grid to talk about your secrets. Certainly don’t talk about it on the phone, write it in an email or discuss it on Skype. At least turn off the location detection feature on your phone if you’re trying to hide!

But for all the outrage, what do people do? They rant on the Internet. It’s nearly impossible to resist. CNN summed it up well: “There’s fairly delicious irony to people taking to the Internet to joke about the government monitoring the Internet.”

Trading privacy for security?

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told CNN, “If you are a law-abiding citizen of this country, going about your business and your personal life, you have nothing to fear … But if you are a would-be terrorist or the center of a criminal network …, you should be worried, because that is what we work on. And we are, on the whole, quite good at it.”

Still, this situation puts Americans in an uncomfortable place. Security threats are a sobering reality. A man was caught trying to board an American Airlines plane with a shoe bomb in December 2001, so we take off our shoes for airport security every time we fly. This demand isn’t made because anyone suspects that we’re all terrorists with plans to blow up the airplanes we board. But these awkward policies are actually managing to thwart attacks. The Heritage Foundation reports in detail 50 foiled terrorist attacks since 9/11: “While three of the 50 known plots were foiled by luck or the quick action of the American public, the remaining 47 were thwarted due to the concerted efforts of intelligence and law enforcement.”

So, after a lot of thought about this, and until I learn something new that changes my mind, I’m with the 62 percent of Americans who indicated that it’s more important to “investigate terrorist threats” than to “intrude on privacy” when they responded to a national survey conducted June 6–9 by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post. This means that I’m happy to play along for now and allow access to my updates about weekend putt-putt games and home improvement wins.

It’s certainly a slippery slope with heavy potential for abuse, but if the largest corporations can continue collecting data on my buying behaviors to improve their marketing prowess, then I’m perfectly comfortable with the federal government continuing to assimilate data to identify threats to our national security. If leveraging access to mass communication channels and watching for suspicious patterns among known criminals can stop terrorists attacks and make life better, then I say do it.

Senator Lindsey Graham said it best in a New York Times article: “If we don’t do it, we’re crazy.” And if you don’t like it, you can pull the plug on your own communication devices at any time.

How do you feel about the latest news on data and national security? Tell us in the comments.

Image credit: Wikimedia