When did Edward Snowden become a rock star? Two major tech conferences have recently hosted him by video, without any chance for a rebuttal from the other side. This ignores the fact that he stole highly classified intelligence and defense information -- which gives bad guys our technology playbook, compromises sources and methods and puts lives at risk.
The debate about the intersection of security and privacy is long overdue: It should have happened as the programs were put into place by the secretive Bush/Cheney White House. But a debate requires more than one perspective, and usually a bit of history.
Most people want the capability to stop terror plots by tracking so-called "dirty" phone numbers, which is what Section 215 of the Patriot Act provides -- but many, including me, believe that revisions are needed.
If press reports are correct, the president will soon chuck the federal stockpiling of phone metadata and ask Congress to enact reforms, an iffy proposition in the toxic partisan environment.
Privatizing the storage of phone numbers and call duration is good news. At present, telecommunications firms hold metadata for 18 months while NSA stores and holds data for five years. Congress will have to consider how long it should compel telecoms to hold data, and probably will have to compensate them -- tough in a time of budget deficit.
Remember that the metadata program is only one element of the complicated but critical US surveillance and intelligence toolkit. Whenever he makes his announcement, it would help if the president sets out the comprehensive legal framework underpinning our surveillance activities. Absent a clearly defined framework, Snowden's hemorrhaging leaks keep our Intelligence Community playing defense. Only when the public understands the context will Snowden's ill-deserved "fifteen minutes" and truly dangerous game will be blunted. High time.
Sadly, Snowden is a huge distraction at a time when we need to understand Russian and Syrian intentions -- and we need robust technical capabilities and public buy-in to do this.
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