The case of Edward Snowden is complicated, isn’t it? Snowden aroused considerable consternation with his revelation that the government has been amassing a vast trove of so-called “metadata,” records of the frequency and duration — though not of the content — of millions of phone calls made by Americans.
As it turns out, much more than phone calls is involved. On July 31, the British newspaper The Guardian reported on a National Security Agency program called XKeyscore, which provides analysts with access to essentially everything that users do on the Internet, including emails, online chats and browsing histories.
This issue is readily reduced to the conflict between liberty and privacy and security. More than once, Benjamin Franklin has been cited in connection with this case: “Those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
But this high-minded 18th-century aphorism probably oversimplifies modern realities that Franklin would have had a hard time imagining.
The brilliant visionary might have had trouble understanding modern concentrations of power — for example, a high-powered semiautomatic weapon with a 30-round magazine or a portable nuclear bomb — that give a relatively small number of people the ability to wreak widespread destruction and havoc.
Further, Franklin, the genius behind the American postal system, probably would have had difficulty envisioning our astonishingly sophisticated worldwide network of communications, which gives bad people extraordinary capacity to develop, coordinate and execute catastrophes and gives good people the capacity to stop them.
This context is important to our estimation of Snowden’s actions and the government’s extensive collection of metadata.
Nevertheless, our hair-trigger outrage over this indiscriminate data mining — how dare they! — is probably healthy, and it comes from both the left and the right. Whether we’re doing anything wrong or not, we hold our privacy in considerable regard, and we have an inherent suspicion when other people, especially the government, know too much about our business.
Furthermore, many American citizens of a certain age have an appreciation for whistle-blowers in the tradition of Daniel Ellsberg, whose release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 revealed the mendacity and corruption behind the Vietnam War. It’s not clear that Snowden has risen to Ellsberg’s level, but many Americans still have trouble condemning him as an outright traitor.
Nevertheless, let’s try to keep our consternation under control and in tune with the realities of the situation. We may not like the idea that the government is collecting data on our private communications, but it doesn’t really have a choice, does it?
For example, last week the U.S. State Department issued a global travel alert to American citizens and closed more than 20 diplomatic missions in the Middle East and North Africa because of security concerns based on intercepted electronic communications among al-Qaida operatives that indicated attacks could be imminent.
What would spark much more outrage than Snowden’s revelations would be the discovery that the government had failed to prevent a terrorist attack by neglecting communications that could be accessible to any second-rate hacker.
In any case, our consternation over governmental data mining is ironic. Our era may be the most “confessional” ever. People will say anything on TV and publish the most intimate details of their lives on Facebook and Twitter. Politicians and celebrities readily post snapshots of their anatomies on the Internet for all to see. And then we’re shocked when we discover that anyone is actually looking or listening.
The term “new normal” is probably overused to describe all the bad things that are happening these days. But circumstances have changed since Franklin’s day. The monitoring of our use of cellphones and the Internet is probably inevitable in the interest of security. Judicial oversight is essential, and so is transparency. We should at least know that data mining is happening. And for that, I guess, we have Edward Snowden to thank.