I called former NSA employee Edward Snowden a traitor when he first revealed sensitive information about the U.S. intelligence community’s databases and espionage practices. To me, gathering information from U.S. citizens, inadvertently or intentionally, was a necessary part of America’s national defense. I have since softened my stance. Here’s why.
Democrats and Republicans alike have been screaming bloody murder at the U.S. executive, legislative, and intelligence communities for allowing a system of information gathering to balloon to the point where it couldn’t avoid infringing on people’s rights. I find leakers like Snowden and Wikileaks’ Julian Assange to be misguided, because the information they reveal can endanger lives and undermine operations that make the world a safer place. I don’t condone their actions, but I now think that people who are opposed to data surveillance on civil liberty grounds are onto something.
It wasn’t until I recently composed a sensitive email that the gravity of what the NSA does became clear. My potential embarrassment if someone got their hands on my email put the flaws of PRISM and data mining into perspective. Even though nothing I had written was particularly damaging, I would not be OK with others viewing my correspondence.
President Barack Obama and intelligence hawks say that information gathered on Americans is not directly scrutinized, and that no one ever listens to our phone calls, sifts through our Facebook messages, or checks the geo-spatial data on our cell phones. Fine, that’s great. I believe Director of National Intelligence James Clapper when he assures us that if we are not terrorists, we have no one eavesdropping our private activities. But that isn’t the point.
What is missing from this debate over the extent to which government can reach into our daily lives is not necessarily how unconstitutional these data-mining activities are, but just how out of hand they can become. Too many pundits are focused on how many lives PRISM has saved, whether terrorist attacks were thwarted, or which civil liberties were trampled. The fact is that Congress, two presidents, and the courts all approved the operation.
These programs are here to stay, and they will only grow in power, scope, and reach.
Here is what’s going to happen. One day, someone with access to all this stored data is going to use it in a way that will harm innocent, private citizens. A wealthy politician on the verge of defeat is going to pay someone to leak stored info on his opponent. A corporation will deploy resources to gain information about a rival firm, giving them an unfair advantage in the marketplace. And, more likely, a worker with a top-secret security clearance will leak it all, because he or she – like Snowden – think they can truly make a difference.
If there is one analyst disgruntled enough to reveal information as sensitive as that regarding PRISM and other programs, there will certainly be others. Millions of Americans have security clearances, but it would only take one Assange-ian or Snowden-ite with access to metadata stores to destroy careers and do serious damage. The fallout from one of these mass releases of private citizen information would be incomprehensible. If people are angry over this program now, just wait until lives have been ruined because embarrassing private information is circulating.
A leak of this scale wouldn’t even require a motivated whistleblower to initiate it. Accidental leaks occur as a result of human errors and failures of technology. Every day that your information circulates on government servers, it could potentially show on the internet. That is how data mining programs increasingly threaten civil liberties.
The federal government’s chief responsibility is protecting citizens from physical harm. Thwarting terrorist attacks is of the utmost importance, but there must be a middle ground somewhere. Snowden was misguided to reveal what he did the way he did – it was childish, morally reprehensible, and did not lend him any ability to change the system he so came to loathe. But his actions, fortunately, shed light on a program that threatens to morph into something more egregious than the sum of its current parts.