Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Spying and our right to know

Edward Snowden must have taken wry satisfaction in President Obama's call last week for an overhaul of the nation's surveillance policies.

Snowden, you will recall, is the man who leaked the existence of the National Security Agency's possession of a huge collection of Americans' phone records. He has chosen exile in Russia instead of facing criminal charges in his own country.

Snowden may have broken the law, but bear in mind, we would not know the extent of the government's capacity to reach into our private lives had he not made his disclosures.

And we deserve to know, even if national security requires use of this data in the fight against terrorism.

Largely because of Snowden, we must assume there are virtually no limits to what the government theoretically could know about all of us. It ought to end some of the nonsensical talk about our constitutional rights. Our constitutional rights do us no good if we have a bad government that ignores them. This should underscore the necessity of choosing honorable public officials.

The question is raised in extreme circles as to whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. The same can be said for Bradley Manning, the soldier who gave U.S. government war logs and State Department cables to Wikileaks, an organization that exists to make such disclosures.

In both cases, much of what was disclosed should not have been confidential in the first place.   This perchant for secrecy, by the way, has always been true of government at every level, from the local planning commission to the United Nations.

  "I’m not sure that heroism — or, if it’s more your speed, the dastardly perfidy — of Manning and Snowden really matters in the end," wrote Tom Watson in Forbes. "What does matter is that there are other Bradley Mannings and Edward Snowdens out there right now, with their fingers on keyboards connected to vast databases that remain — only in theory, as it turns out — secret. What matters is that digital security in our still young, newly-networked age is losing almost as quickly as privacy — and privacy has lost, almost completely."

Watson suggests "pioneer" is a better word to attach to Snowden and Manning.

Gathering information is easy, and getting easier — as millions of consumers voluntarily put their personal data on public or corporate networks. Keeping that information secret is clearly much more difficult, and may be getting harder. That’s why Snowden and Manning — whether traitors or heroes or neither — should be rightly be regarded as the first arrivals of the wave still to come."

It is a brave new world indeed.

Medal of freedom for Manning?

Edward Snowden: Hero or Traitor?

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