On January 17 President Obama started his speech about the NSA with remarks about the long history of US intelligence activities since the dawn of the American Revolution. He exemplified how intelligence has helped to secure the country and to support the military throughout American history.
History is often a good starting point for a speech, at least for a European citizen. However, in a discussion about the right balance between security and freedom the history of freedom should not be forgotten.
It is not easy to say where to start, but any deliberation of the matter should not neglect James Otis’ speech from 1761 against the writs of assistance. The writs were general warrants allowing officials of the British Crown to search for smuggled material within any suspected premises of the so called American colonies at that time. For James Otis one of the most essential branches of Liberty was the freedom of one’s house. In his speech he referred to Sir Edward Coke’s famous statement that “A man’s home is his castle – for where shall he be safe if it not be in his house?” This is much more modern than it sounds. In times of rapidly growing technological capabilities and of automatic industrial data collection the question is to whom personal data belongs and what government officials should be allowed to store? In Sir Edward Coke’s words: where does the house end in the twenty-first century? Is a smart phone with all its personal data and including the metadata of calls still part of a man’s house?