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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

The spy we know might be better than the hacker we don't

Two more states said on Wednesday, April 8,

Two more states said on Wednesday, April 8, 2014 that they would be investigating a data breach at Experian Plc that exposed 200 million Social Security numbers. Credit: Getty Images / Patrick Lux

The day of the shooting that killed 10 staffers of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and two police officers, British commentator and political activist Dan Hodges wrote an impassioned column concluding that such terrorism is the real threat to freedom -- not the national security programs often decried as endangering liberties.

"If we want to live in a free society, then we are going to have to protect ourselves from people who would take it from us at the point of a gun," wrote Hodges. In his view, if that means giving the government more latitude in surveillance of email and other communications, so be it.

Such arguments, equally relevant in the United States, understandably infuriate civil libertarians, who argue that if we surrender our privacy out of fear, we are likely to end up with less freedom but not more safety. Certainly, the impulse to give the government more powers when we are shaken and scared in the aftermath of a terror attack should be curbed; laws that affect our rights should be considered very carefully to ensure proper oversight and minimize the risk of abuse. However, Hodges highlights an important point that is often overlooked: Some of the worst threats to our rights, freedoms and privacy do not come from the government but from malefactors outside the law.

Terrorism is the most obvious example. Many journalists have held back from publishing Charlie Hebdo's cartoons of Muhammad, the apparent cause of the Paris attack. Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris, who called on her colleagues to draw Muhammad in 2010 to resist would-be censors of such cartoons, has been in hiding since then because of al-Qaida threats to her life. Are there journalists in any of the world's liberal democracies who face comparable levels of intimidation by the government?

Another form of law-breaking that poses a clear danger to our freedom, and our privacy, is cybercrime and computer hacking. The recent hack of Sony Entertainment Pictures emails in apparent retaliation for "The Interview," the comedy depicting the fictional assassination of North Korea's dictator, is a notable recent example. While the North Korean regime may have been connected to this cyber-attack, it was almost certainly carried out by private individuals. While the hacking did not stop the movie's eventual release, it caused serious embarrassment to the studio.

While spying by the National Security Agency raises disturbing questions about official accountability and the limits of surveillance, the reality is that a cybercriminal is probably more likely to snoop on your email than the government. What's more, while the government would pay a devastating price if it were caught using compromising material obtained through NSA spying to embarrass or pressure a gadfly journalist or political activist, hackers could do so with impunity.

I have to admit that on occasion, I have been concerned that my writing on certain topics may expose me to the wrath of so-called "hacktivists" -- not enough to censor myself, but enough to worry. I have never been concerned about retaliation from the U.S. government, and not for lack of criticizing it.

This is not to downplay the menace of state tyranny. An authoritarian government is more dangerous to freedom than freelance tyrants, because it usually has more power and resources. A government limited by constitutional rights and by checks and balances is capable of abuses, as we know all too well; but its ability to do damage is severely circumscribed.

That is why liberal democracies are worth defending and fighting for -- even if we should always be careful which weapons we entrust to the government in this fight.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.