No one should be surprised by the knowledge Edward Snowden leaked. After 9/11, we churned out an 8 trillion-dollar governmental leviathan which created dozens of new agencies and a 1.4 million person bureaucracy with top-secret clearance in the hopes of preventing more terrorism. In the 21st century, this means data and phone collection, especially post Patriot Act, which has given the U.S. government a continual secret expansion of intelligence related authority. The nations within the European Union can drop the fake public outrage over the reported light espionage the U.S. does on them as well. Every nation does intelligence on its friends and foes, has since dawn of time, and will continue to do so. Computers just simplify that process. The global war on terror is just that–global. It doesn’t mean the U.S. is invading Europe or launching Chinese style industrial espionage. Such events would be easily leaked and disastrous for trade relationships.
But the Snowden leaks also exposed the deep-seated cynicism and paranoia within a portion of the country. This paranoia comes largely from the people I’ve labeled the “Conspiracy Crowd”. These are the guys who were outraged over the Xbox One’s requirement that the Kinect motion sensor always be on–because Microsoft or the government wants to tap into these to keep an eye on you. These are the libertarian minded folk who are outraged over the pat down policy the TSA does at the airport. And there are those who think that the NSA is keeping tabs on every little thing they do.
The truth is that most people value their privacy, and more importantly, the privacy of others. But where they will diverge from that opinion is when it comes to safety and security. I have been skeptical when Bush, and recently Obama officials, defended any surveillance programs by claiming that dozens of attacks had been thwarted. It’s difficult to prove that you stopped something that didn’t happen. I don’t know what the right level of surveillance and data collection is. I personally couldn’t care less if our government is collecting data on me. They don’t care about my blog, the games I play, or the alleged obsession with cat videos that I may have. The intelligence bureaucracy is not combing through the hundreds of trillions of computer files out there or listening to mundane personal calls. That would be the most boring job in the world. Most of the information collected just sits in a warehouse. Unless there is a glaring spike in suspicious communication from Tehran to New York, most of it will sit in giant hard drives until an investigation into something happens. Without a warrant, this data collection is very sketchy for legal proceedings. That’s why its use is mostly limited to national security matters and not busting your local pot dealer.
Our public and policy makers must decide what degree of domestic surveillance is acceptable. If it was an undeniable fact that data collection saved lives and prevented terrorism at home and abroad, would you be opposed to it? We already divulge our daily locations, our friends, family, and activities to facebook and twitter; our shopping and spending habits to amazon and ebay. All of that sensitive information, despite privacy agreements, is vulnerable to hacking or breach. Corporations sell our personal information to each other daily. That’s the reality of the digital age. Nothing we do is entirely anonymous as it was 30 years ago, and the ease of transportation and communication inevitably means greater risk of digital crimes and physical violence from abroad or down the street. Those who can’t accept that are the paranoid and overly skeptical, while those who do move on and are minimally affected.
And as any new industrial age, there is risk. The Obama administration so far doesn’t appear to be the type to abuse intelligence capability like the Nixon, Reagan, or George W. Bush administrations, but what if the next government is? What if a government 20 years from now is, with the same or even broader access than now? That’s where our problem is. All of this has the potential to be dangerously infringing and visibly disruptive upon normal life on a moment’s notice.
If our government wants to keep using drones for combat, surveillance, and occasional police use, it needs to be shifted from the unaccountable CIA to the very accountable Army and localities, and warrants need to be obtained from federal courts rather than secret tribunals with no oversight. The same goes for any data collection or wiretapping on civilians. If something is truly in the interest of national security or the public good, then oversight and a clear set of rules for operation are needed. If it is something that needs more discretion, courts can put holds on transparency requests which might endanger operations, but nothing should be sealed from the public far beyond that operational window with few exceptions. The concerns from Obama officials that the terrorists will “know our tactics” is a farce. They know we do phone surveillance and data tracing, particularly from international sources. We now are scanning every piece of mail delivered in the U.S. (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/04/us/monitoring-of-snail-mail.html?pagewanted=all). Not to mention we are waging constant covert operations on terrorist links with drones and spec ops forces. I’m quite sure they are familiar with our tactics, and there is little they can do to get around it. If there is some unknown top-secret program or the like that we don’t know about which might change our perspective on things–fine, keep it secret but give it a code name and a specific top-secret clearance rather than blanket all surveillance activity that involves civilian data collection. Targeted collection or spying without just cause is not acceptable, and we have no idea if its going on or not. Leaks cannot be the source of public briefing.
In the 21st century, technology and terrorism coexisting can either produce death and destruction or force us to reduce our guarantee to total privacy –perhaps a combination of both. I cannot decide the balance, but the American public can if they are given the facts honestly. In the end, the hard decisions that both Bush and Obama have overseen regarding surveillance and intelligence (despite several noticeable hiccups) probably are in our interest, no matter how unfortunate they may be or against our preferred interest. But public safety should not compromise our constitutional core or disregard sufficient public informing. More oversight and accountability will benefit our national standing as well as our long-term security interests, while also appealing to our democratic sense of fairness and due process. The “Conspiracy Crowd’s” hyperbolic accusations might as well be fact until we can have that no-brainer standard.