As the world focuses on the activities and adventures of Edward Snowden, a debate has opened in the United States over privacy.
It's certainly easy to be against anything that compromises our privacy. In fact, most of us see our rights in this area as American as hot dogs and apple pie. Privacy is often associated with liberty, which is defined as "the freedom to think or act without being constrained by necessity or force." In other words, what we do is our business - not anyone else's.
But this concept of privacy becomes much more difficult to get your hands around in today's interconnected and often messy society. We have to balance privacy with safety. When tragedies such as the Boston massacre or school shootings happen, we absolutely expect that every possible precaution and effort was taken to prevent them and that the tools are in place to rapidly identify and catch the perpetrators.
When lives are lost, personal privacies are put into context. In this day and age, law enforcement officers must work to keep us safe not only with their eyes and ears but with all kinds of new technology that finds and generates information. Whether it's cellphone data, online materials or information generated by the scan of a license plate - these little pieces of information can help paint a picture about what is really going on. It's critical that law enforcement have access to this information so they can analyze it and prevent future terrorist attacks.
According to estimates, law enforcement agencies have prevented more than 50 attempted terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11. These results are certainly impressive, and they happened as a result of gathering the best information available and making good decisions based on that information.
I'm certainly not suggesting the government should stick its nose into every data pile that exists. There are limits. However, if one nugget of information can prevent the next terrorist attack, isn't it worth it? My answer is certainly yes.
Keep this in mind: Terrorists know and understand the U.S. Constitution. In fact, many of them understand it better than most Americans. Extremists and radicals are well aware they can hide behind the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. So the real question here is what is reasonable? Collecting a few data points and analyzing them is certainly within the Constitutional limits laid out by our Founding Fathers. In my industry, license plate recognition, we use cameras and software as a way to speed up the analysis of license plate information so more criminals can be caught in real time - before they do something bad.
We are surrounded by information. This is information that should be used and harnessed to help us live better - and safer. I personally would not risk the life of a single child, student or law officer for the information revealed by Edward Snowden, and I think the public would excoriate him if his actions were taken advantage of by terrorists or psychopaths. That's why I believe Snowden is a criminal, not a hero. He released surveillance information that could compromise the security of our nation, and he should be tracked down and prosecuted.
The writer is founder and CEO of Oldsmar-based PlateSmart Technologies, a license plate recognition software company.