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The Government and Its Secrets: A Matter of Principles

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Prism

America is supposed to be a nation governed by principles, which are undergirded by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and carried into law. The discussion about the government and its capture of *our* data should be held on the level of principles.

Privacy: Our direct and personal communication in any medium and by any means -- mail, email, phone, VOIP, Twitter DM, and any technology yet to be invented -- should be considered private, as our physical mail is, and subject to government intervention only through lawful warrant. That is not the case. Thus it is quite reasonable to be disturbed at the news that government can demand and receive communication we believe to be private. Government may call itself the protector of our privacy but it is our privacy's worst enemy.

Transparency: The actions of government should be known to citizens. I argue in Public Parts that our institutions should be public by default, secret by necessity; now they are secret by default and open by force. There are necessary secrets. There is a need for intelligence. There I agree with David Simon. I saw people die before me on 9/11 and I fault intelligence or not stopping it.

But we are left out of the discussion of where the line of necessity should be. If President Obama believes in the transparency he talks about and if he now says he welcomes the debate about security and freedom then it should have occurred *before* government took the actions now being reported and not by force through leaks. There I agree with James Fallows that this leak is not harmful -- what bad guys didn't already realize that their phones could be tracked? -- and will be beneficial for democracy.

Balance of powers: The best protection of our nation's principles is the balance of powers. Yes, Congress passed the Patriot Act and yes, a FISA court does approve the executive branch's actions. But both our representatives and our justices are prevented from sharing anything with us, as are the companies that are forced to be their accomplices. The true balance of powers is the exercise of democracy by citizens, but without information we have no power and government has it all.

Freedom of speech and of the press: Information comes to the public from the press, which is now anyone with information to share. And citizens exercise power through speech. But in its jihad against leaks... that is whistleblowers... that is reporting... that is journalism and the public's right to know, the White House is chilling both the press and speech. I pray that Glenn Greenwald doesn't have a Verizon phone.

This discussion is less about privacy and more about transparency and speech. The principles most offended here are those embedded in the First Amendment for those are the principles we rely upon to take part in the debate that is democracy.

I am asking for government to behave according to principles. I am also asking companies to do so. Twitter -- whose behavior toward developers and users can sometimes mystify me -- is apparently the platform most stalwart in standing for its users' rights as a matter of principle. They apparently refused to make it easier for government to get data. Now one could argue that helping government thwart terrorists is also behaving according to principle. But again we and these companies aren't allowed to have that debate. So I'd now advise following what is apparently Twitter's route in only responding to demands, nothing more. And I'd advise following Google's example in revealing government demands for information (though under FISA, once again, they're not allowed to reveal -- even by a count -- them all).

There is much debate and sometimes conspiracy theorizing swirling around about what Google, Facebook, et al did and didn't provide to government. I take Larry Page's and Mark Zuckerberg's statements at their literal word and agree with Declan McCullagh that I so far see no evidence that these companies handed the keys to their servers to the NSA. We know and they have long said that they comply with government orders, whether in the U.S. or China.

Though some are attacking him on this issue and though I often disagree with him on the state of the news business, I again say that I agree with David Simon on the unsophisticated and emotional interpretation of this news. Since the initial New York Times report on NSA "warrantless wiretapping," I have understood that one of government's goals is to use data to find anomalies but to do that it has to have a baseline of normal behavior. We're the normal. This has been going on for sometime, as Simon says; we just haven't known how.

Are we as a nation OK with allowing government to make such an analysis to find the terrorists' anomalous behavior or not? That's a discussion that should occur according to principles, properly informed about the risks and benefits. Are we OK with government using that same data to fish for other crimes -- like, say, leaking a PowerPoint to the Guardian? I am not. Are we OK with government treating whistleblowers and leakers as traitors -- starting with Bradley Manning? I am not. I agree with Bruce Shneier: "We need whistleblowers." Are we OK with government having access to our private communications without warrants? I say: most definitely not, as a matter of principle.

Under a regime of secrecy, assuming the worst becomes the default in the discussion. We assume the worst of government because they keep from us even activities they say are harmless and beneficial. We see people who want to be suspicious of technology and technology companies assuming the worst of them because, after all, we can't know precisely what they are doing. I agree with Farhad Manjoo about the danger. People in other nations -- I'm looking at you, EU -- already distrust both the American government and American technology companies, often in the past for emotional reasons or with anti-American roots but now with more cause. You can bet we'll hear governments across Europe and elsewhere push harder for legislation now in process to require that their citizens' data be held outside the U.S. and to European standards because, well, they assume the worst. We'll hear calls to boycott American-made platforms because -- even if they try not to go along -- their acquiescence to our government means they cannot be trusted. This is bad for the net and bad for the country. The fault lies with government.

This is a story about transparency and the lack of it. It is a story about secrecy and its damages. It is a story about principles that are being flouted. It should be a discussion about upholding principles.