Since the news broke last month about the domestic spying programs laid out in the secret documents Edward Snowden leaked I’ve tried to make the case why all of us should be angry that our government is spying on us. Some have argued, “but I’ve done nothing wrong so I don’t have anything to worry about.” Well, you may not have done anything illegal…but do you really want the government knowing and storing information about everything you do? The folks at Upworthy tweeted a link to this ACLU video that has an answer for those people.
On a lazy Sunday reading the paper and following Ed Snowden around the world on Twitter, I came across a couple of gems…
It is my hope that the revelations of the extent of U.S. government spying on its citizens that were sparked by Snowden’s leaks lead us to really talk about it, not just repeat talking points: are we prepared to surrender so much of our privacy and our freedom without a fight? Do we have any reason to trust the government when it say it’s only looking for bad guys and foreigners and is protecting us? A Guardian story I came across in Jack Shafer’s Twitter feed makes the point:
At every point in this unfolding story, government ministers and officials on both sides of the Atlantic have been at pains to point out that everything that is done by the NSA and GCHQ is lawful because there is “legal oversight”. The problem is that citizens have to take their word for it because every substantive aspect of that oversight is secret.
The conversation between the state and the citizen has been reduced to a dialogue that the writer would have recognised. It goes like this.
State Although intrusive surveillance does infringe a few liberties, it’s necessary if you are to be protected from terrible things.
Citizen (anxiously) What terrible things?
State Can’t tell you, I’m afraid, but believe us they are truly terrible. And, by the way, surveillance has already prevented some terrible things.
Citizen Such as?
State Sorry, can’t go into details about those either.
Citizen So how do I know that this surveillance racket isn’t just bureaucratic empire building?
State You don’t need to worry about that because it’s all done under legal authority.
Citizen So how does that work?
State Regrettably, we can’t go into details because if we did so then the bad guys might get some ideas.
What it comes down to, in the end, is: “Trust us.” And the trouble with that is that in recent decades our political elites have done precious little to deserve our trust.
Need more proof? How about the news that the Obama Administration is pushing all federal departments and agencies—not just those concerned with national security—to have employees watch their colleagues but also to “pursue unauthorized disclosures of any information, not just classified material.”
The program could make it easier for the government to stifle the flow of unclassified and potentially vital information to the public, while creating toxic work environments poisoned by unfounded suspicions and spurious investigations of loyal Americans, according to these current and former officials and experts. Some non-intelligence agencies already are urging employees to watch their co-workers for “indicators” that include stress, divorce and financial problems.
“It was just a matter of time before the Department of Agriculture or the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) started implementing, ‘Hey, let’s get people to snitch on their friends.’ The only thing they haven’t done here is reward it,” said Kel McClanahan, a Washington lawyer who specializes in national security law. “I’m waiting for the time when you turn in a friend and you get a $50 reward.”
I concede that there are areas of government operations where the need to protect sensitive information is legitimate, but not every area of government meets that standard. That’s why it’s important that there are people who leak government secrets, and that we have news publications of every medium that investigate and publish that information. The leakers don’t have to be saints for us to be thankful they are there, as Ben Smith writes in BuzzFeed today.
There is now a heated debate over the moral status of Edward Snowden — who fled Hong Kong for Moscow en route, reportedly, to Ecuador Sunday — and over whether his decision to flee almost certain conviction and imprisonment in the United States means that his actions can’t be considered “civil disobedience.” These seem like good questions for a philosophy class. They are terrible, boring, ones for reporters, and have more to do with the confusing new news environment than with the actual news.
Snowden is what used to be known as a source. And reporters don’t, and shouldn’t, spend too much time thinking about the moral status of their sources. Sources sometimes act from the best of motives — a belief that readers should know something is amiss, or a simple desire to see a good story told. They also often act from motives far more straightforwardly venal than anything than has been suggested of Snowden: They want to screw someone who is in their way professionally; they want to score an ideological point by revealing a personal misdeed; they are acting on an old grudge, and serving revenge cold; they are collecting chits with the press to be cashed in later.
…the new media ecosystem has moved sources to the foreground. They make their cases directly on Twitter or in web videos; in Snowden’s case, he also chose to protect himself by going and staying public in a way that would never before have been fully possible. “Big news will now carve its own route to the ocean, and no one feels the need to work with the traditional power players to make it happen,” David Carr wrote recently. The fact that the public must now meet our sources, with their complex motives and personalities, is part of that deal.
Snowden’s flight is a great, classic international story. It is, as Glenn Greenwald tweeted today, a kind of global White Bronco moment. His roots in web culture; his ideology; his decision-making; these are all great stories. He’s a much more interesting figure than Mark Felt because, at least, he’s a new figure, not a familiar one.
Snowden’s flight and its surrounding geopolitics are a good story; what he made public is a better one. I’m not sure why reporters should care all that much about his personal moral status, the meaning of the phrase “civil disobedience,” or the fate of his eternal soul. And the public who used to be known as “readers” are going to have to get used to making that distinction.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Tom The Dancing Bug has something to say on this subject:
Thanks to TDB and GoComics.com.
As they used to say on every Top 40 rock ‘n’ roll station ever, the hits just keep on comin’:
After a stunning one-two punch of secret spying revelations last week, one thing that I hadn’t really counted on happened right away: a voluntary and fairly proud confession from the guy who says he turned over the secret documents to the reporters. Meet Ed Snowden, and read the Washington Post reporter’s sidebar describing what it was like to communicate with Snowden, who knew that he had turned himself into a marked man.
Last week someone (I forget who) noted, possibly on Twitter, the irony that we as a nation feel confident in farming out our National Security Agency work to companies like Snowden’s employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, which didn’t know that he was gathering up documents and talking to reporters, but the job of groping us in airports is so critical that only a government employee will do. Oh, by the way, in a classic horse/barn door kinda thing, Booz Allen finally got around to firing Snowden…
I also expected this sooner: the ACLU is suing the government alleging violation of its rights of free speech, association, and privacy:
As an organization that advocates for and litigates to defend the civil liberties of society’s most vulnerable, the staff at the ACLU naturally use the phone—a lot—to talk about sensitive and confidential topics with clients, legislators, whistleblowers, and ACLU members. And since the ACLU is a VBNS [Verizon] customer, we were immediately confronted with the harmful impact that such broad surveillance would have on our legal and advocacy work. So we’re acting quickly to get into court to challenge the government’s abuse of Section 215.
One of the most fun things here has been that the secret court orders forcing telephone and Internet companies to turn over information are so secret that the companies aren’t even allowed to discuss the orders, and the news has made it look like the companies have been happily cooperating with the feds in violating their customers’ privacy. For anyone who still thinks there is no presumption of privacy anymore, consider this: Google is asking government permission to spill the beans and tell its customers what it has done, in order to “to ease public concerns about the privacy and security of users’ data.”
Google’s inability to disclose “the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests” fuels speculation that the company has given the U.S. government free access to all its users’ data. That speculation, [Google chief legal officer David] Drummond wrote, is “simply untrue.”
What about our national leaders, the men and women to whom we look for guidance and wisdom on such occasions…what do they have to say about this whole invasion of privacy/government spying on Americans thing? Fortunately, some have been right on top of things, speaking out in favor of a national discussion about the proper balance of safety versus privacy; some have taken some time to think things over before coming to a conclusion about Snowden, and most are waiting for the polls to come in.
OK then, here’s the first poll: Americans tell the Pew Center that they’re pretty much OK with their government spying on them…
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post…finds no indications that last week’s revelations of the government’s collection of phone records and internet data have altered fundamental public views about the tradeoff between investigating possible terrorism and protecting personal privacy.
Currently 62% say it is more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy. Just 34% say it is more important for the government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.
Not everyone thinks that, though, me included. But I’ve already had my say this past week; I recommend taking a look at Emily Bazelon’s thoughts on government abuse of power…
The government has admitted to unconstitutional NSA spying before—last year. The existence of these newly reported databases should be worrisome because once the information is collected, it is so much easier for the government to misuse it. The more data mining, the more it becomes routine and the more tempting to come up with more uses for it. If you trust President Obama and his people not to go too far, what about the next president, or the one after that? We have now had a Republican and a Democrat administration sign up for a broad expansion of warrantless wiretapping and other surveillance, and bipartisan support in Congress for the tradeoffs we have struck. And yes, there is more to the current revelations than we know—in particular, the rationale for the FISA court’s long-standing order for the phone data, and the rationale for PRISM. Let’s concede that a terrorist attack somewhere has probably been prevented as a result of these efforts. So how do we ever go back?
We probably don’t. And someday, the abuses will begin, in all likelihood long before we know about them. I’m not usually moved by slippery slope arguments. But this one looks so very easy to slide down.
…and Charles Cooke’s consideration of a simple historical lesson on personal privacy in a free society:
The adult truth, as ever, is that being free means accepting the negative consequences of being free. I daresay that if cameras were installed in every one of the Republic’s private bedrooms and monitored around the clock by well-meaning sentinels, then the rates of both domestic violence and spousal murder would decrease dramatically. But a free people must instinctively reject such measures as a profound threat to their liberty and, in doing so, accept the risks of unregulated home life. Alas, the story of the last century is the tale of a gradually diminishing tolerance for risk. “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. In almost all areas, our modern calculation is quite the opposite.
The Fourth Amendment exists now for precisely the same reason that it existed in 1791: to ensure that, in the absence of extremely compelling situations, Americans are not subject to casual government scrutiny. Its authors understood that knowledge is power, and that, as there is no justification for the state to have too much power over you, there is also no justification for the state to have too much knowledge about you
I hope that as this story continues in the months to come, people will give it the serious thought that it deserves. For those having a tough time getting a handle on what all the furor is about, try this as a starting place: would you feel the same way you do now about the actions of the U.S. government if the last president were still in the White House?