Edward Snowden: NSA Leaker Exposes the End Of an Open Society


The political world is on fire!

Doctored talking points, seized phone records, reporters labeled as co-conspirators against the government, and now a massive database tracking the phone calls, emails, and all other digitized data stuffs that the good citizens of the United States produce.

It seems that we've all woken up at once to a world unfamiliar. Perhaps, this explains the success of that "Radioactive" song, with the lyrics:

I'm waking up, I feel it in my bones

But now we're there, and a lot of us are not quite sure what to do. NSA leaker Edward Snowden explained that he wanted "the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens," and President Obama is "welcoming the debate."

Over at the National Journal, we're given a list of "gnawing questions," including: "Why does a secret federal court almost always side with the government's requests to seize information?"  (Naïveté must be a job requirement at the NJ).

The problem that exists is one Americans are familiar with: how do we square the society that we value — free, equal, and unafraid — with the demands of the world around us?  We were reminded in Boston about how lethal a lapse in diligence can be — just as we were over 10 years ago in New York City, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D. C.

Think about how obvious most of the Tsarnaev activity seems in retrospect: the guy is making suspect visits back to his native country, the Russians (the Russians!) are giving us a heads up, and the older Tamerlan Tsarnaev was snooping around al Qaeda's online magazine Inspire for a recipe on how to "Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom." 

Yet, even with the online reading list of a terrorist Martha Stewart, the Tsarnaevs did what they came to do. Do we think that it's always going to be that easy?

The crimes of the future will be harder to follow. As terrifying as the Boston bombing may have been, this "new age" of ours welcomes in a whole host of avenues and platforms for crime.

The ability to doctor e-mails, to tap phones, to redirect messages, to steal banking information, to steal someone's identity, to change that identity, to create entire pasts, to censor news or misrepresent news, to track locations, to render businesses inactive or shut down websites, to jam card readers, to break passwords, to survey private homes — all of these things will be increasingly more possible from remote areas that you'll never see or trace. 

So what is a government to do? I am sympathetic with the case made by Thomas Friedman over at the New York Times:

Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened. But I worry even more about another 9/11. That is, I worry about something that's already happened once — that was staggeringly costly — and that terrorists aspire to repeat.

What Friedman recognizes is — in a democracy — freedom is beholden to the people. We remain free because we are vigilant in our duty to defend that freedom. But we also have flaws, and we are given to bouts of extremism. If another 9/11 were to happen, Friedman sees a possibility for "the end of open society as we know it."  And he's probably right.

On the other hand, advocating on behalf of the NSA or this PRISM project is also very much recognizing the end of "open society" as we know it. We've crossed a line here, and everyone knows it.  

For those of us who distrust the government — which is only another way of saying that we naturally distrust any one person given power over others — this is doubly difficult.  What if another Snowden comes along with bad intentions? What if the administration changes and a less favorable crew of representatives are at the helm? They would have all the tools they need.

Simply put, that's our responsibility. Living in a free society is easy enough, but maintaining one is difficult. The government is, we are, under an obligation to maintain safety and a respect for our rights, but that also means that the gray areas demand a working relationship that always remains in tension.

We should give the government the green light. But, we should do it in a limited respect – with consent demanded whenever possible, and a reliable, independent panel of reviewers that are subject to periodic public scrutiny and oversight themselves. We should be jealous of our freedoms and privacy, but generous in our understanding of public safety. 

This demands concessions on both sides. But it also allows for us to maintain a free and democratic system while keeping the nation safe.

We live in a new age — one full of possibilities both great and terrible. But as long as we stay confident in who we are as a people, we can meet its challenges head-on.