If a few years ago, someone told you that the war against government secrecy would be partially fought from the halls of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London and a transit area in Moscow's airport, you would either assume that person was describing Tom Cruise's next Mission Impossible movie or reading from a blog about government conspiracies. You would not assume they were predicting our current political stage. Yet here we are.
So where is here? I, for one, do not intend to debate the innocence or guilt of Edward Snowden or Julian Assange. That's for history to decide. My "here" concerns addressing how both cases could fundamentally impact our privacy rights.
Let's start with Assange and his anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks' demand for government's full transparency. In their mind, from the ashes of deceit and shame a Utopian society will arise. While I heartily support freedom of speech without risk of persecution, I disagree that we are inherently better off without secrets. If you get full transparency from your government, you create legal precedent to demand it from your people. How would you feel if all your friends and relatives could read your texts and emails? Sure it might minimize the actions of Carlos Danger, but to the rest of us, it would severely impact how we communicate with each other. And what about national security? There are times when discretion provides the only means by which we can achieve our goals. We need to protect that right in order to protect ourselves.
Snowden, on the other hand, wants to expose our governments' invasion of privacy of law-abiding citizens, so much so that he was willing to become an airport food connoisseur in Moscow. The ramifications of his actions we see today: an identity crisis for our country. Just who do we want to be? According to President Obama, we need to have a dialogue about security versus privacy. I couldn't agree more, only Snowden's case is about more than that. As John Naughton recently pointed out in The Observer, Snowden's story is really about privacy and the fate of the Internet.
When the National Security Agency leak first came out, James Clapper, our National Director of Intelligence, expressed his outrage to Andrea Mitchell, NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent. "This is someone who for whatever reason, has chosen to violate a sacred trust for this country," remarked Clapper.
Wait a second here. If we're going to talk about violating sacred trusts, then what about what the government is doing with our private information on the World Wide Web? What about their attempts to reinterpret the Fourth Amendment to justify third-parties holding your personal information? What about our government using the world's best intelligence gathering capabilities against its own law-abiding citizens? They're working hand in hand with Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and others to track your moves and dot your I's for you. Do you realize that even if you don't use Facebook they can gather information on you and share it with your government without your ever knowing either fact? As Snowden wrote in an email with a Washington Post correspondent, the Internet has become "a TV that watches you." A TV I might add that stores your information, for all eternity, not in fiber optics but in government libraries, a Dewey Decimal system gone bad.
I still believe we can have privacy on the Internet within social media, while preserving freedom of speech, and governmental law. That was the basis behind my designing Sgrouples as a private social network. I also believe we should be able to maintain privacy when storing information in the cloud, which I also incorporated into Sgrouples. As Naughton points out in his piece, without privacy, how can you justify or entice people to use the cloud? You're defeating the march of technology.
Let's face facts here. The post 9/11 world is very different from the one that preceded it. That is why these government leaks take on a very different face than other famous whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg's story wasn't about individual privacy as much as government secrecy. Assange's and Snowden's stories equally involve both, forcing us to decide what kind of democracy we truly are and what privacy should mean moving forward.