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.
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Want to see the future of unintended consequences? With stunning agility, attorneys in divorce, murder, and other cases have filed demands to access the NSA’s freshly revealed database of US. telephone call traffic links as a vital resource to exculpate their clients. Now picture the world not one year from now, but a decade from now.Skip to next paragraph
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Lesson No. 2: Authorities, you can either fight this new era or embrace it.
Those who resist the trend will follow the obstinate reflexes of history and human nature. But the future will be won by agile ones applying judo, not sumo. Sure, earnest officials in our professional protector caste still need tactical secrecy, short-term and targeted, for many tasks. But it is foolish to ignore the benefits of a secular trend toward an open world. Consider: Among the foes who would do us grievous harm – from terrorists to hostile states to criminal gangs – can you name one that’s not fatally allergic to light? In contrast, modern democracies find light occasionally irksome, generally bracing, and mostly healthy. That difference is the paramount strategic consideration of the 21st century.
Put it another way: No combination of FBI or CIA intelligence coups could possibly hamper the schemes of external foes more thoroughly than for those rival powers to suffer wave after wave of their own Edward Snowdens.
Lesson No. 3: Bad things like 9/11 happen.
When they do, members of our protector caste will claim they might have thwarted calamity if provided greater powers to see, know, analyze, anticipate, and reach. Amid panic and public alarm, those powers will be granted. Top-down surveillance will augment in a forward ratchet that’s hard to rewind. Sure, a decade after 9/11 we may now curb (a little) some warrantless surveillance by the NSA and FBI. But such efforts miss the point, because they buy into the notion of a dichotomy – a zero-sum tradeoff – between security and freedom.
It is fallacious to base our freedom and safety upon blinding elites. First, can you name a time when those on top forsook any powers of vision? Forbid, and you’ll drive it underground, as happened when the US government's “Total Information Awareness” program scurried away from public attention in 2003, finding darker corners in which to grow. As author American sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein said, the chief effect of a privacy law is to “make the (spy) bugs smaller.”
And smaller they become! Cameras get cheaper, better, more mobile, more numerous, and smaller each year. Your Google Glass “specs” may provoke strong objections today, while they resemble Borg implants. Tomorrow they’ll look like normal sunglasses. A few years later, they will vanish into contact lenses. (Prototypes exist.) If laws banish such things, who will be thwarted? Only normal folk, while elites – corporate, wealthy, government, criminal, and foreign – will have the new omniscience. How can they be stopped? Indeed, should they be? Recall how the Boston Marathon bombers were rapidly caught thanks to a ubiquity of cameras, nearly all of them privately owned.
Hence, Lesson No. 4 is much like Lesson No. 2: Citizens, you can either fight this new era or embrace it.