Snooping vs. privacy – lessons for an age of transparency
It's not possible to stop a Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden. They reflect society's push for individualism, suspicion of authority, and digital transparency. Instead, the NSA, FBI, and others must embrace openness, and face greater oversight.
It seems that almost daily that some elite organization is outed for snooping. The National Security Agency monitored traffic patterns from US telephones. Its PRISM program accessed troves of customer data from Internet firms like Microsoft and Apple. British intelligence used public websites to spy on diplomats. The US Postal Service has been logging our physical mail. The FBI admits using drones to tail suspects within the United States. News media are outraged by governmental leak investigations, while celebrities and politicians denounce spy outages by news organizations. Corporations swap our information for profit, without consultation or constraint.Skip to next paragraph
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Meanwhile, alarmed pundits denounce a new tool, Google Glass, the wearable computer that lets uber-geeks record everything they see while overlaying meta-data on the real world they're viewing.
Much of today’s hand-wringing focuses rightfully on potential abuse of power. Both ends of the hoary political spectrum disagree over whether to most fear government or a rising corporate oligarchy, but all paladins of liberty share one dread: that despots will be tech-empowered by universal surveillance.
And what did you expect? Ever since the discovery of printing and glass lenses, each generation (in the West) acquired new prosthetics to expand human vision, memory, and reach. Waves of innovation – from print journalism and libraries to radio, television, and the Internet – promised liberation or oppression. Citizens and societies were disrupted, cajoled, misled ... and adapted.
So, is there a bigger perspective to this latest phase? Look again at Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, or the Swiss bank employees who recently exposed their secretive masters to cleansing light. More significant than any specific revelation is what these knights-errant and countless others represent about our time. Spanning the range from brave whistleblowers revealing the illegal and heinous, all the way to preening indignation junkies, they are just what you’d expect from a society whose pop media endlessly preach eccentric individualism and suspicion of authority.
Which brings us to Lesson No. 1: Oh ye mighty, whether you qualify as conspirators or protectors, you must limit the number of your henchmen.
No array of security clearances and lie detectors will prevent these leaks. Not when your agency employs half a million “trusted” employees and contractors. Nor will it seal the dikes to make an example of some self-styled hero. The more open society becomes, the smaller, more temporary and closely held your secrets had better be.