At first glance, Edward Snowden's decision to leak top secret information about the National Security Agency's newest surveillance program sounded brave and passionate. His choice to have his identity revealed seemed bold and his actions patriotic. But if you read into the story a bit further you will understand that his determination to reveal those secrets was thoughtless and arrogant, a rash desire to share his personal viewpoint that privacy trumps security … But does it? Does your privacy undermine the need for national security? Snowden's self-righteousness was misplaced. Security is too important.
American culture is obsessed with privacy. It is also obsessed with security. The problem is that there is an inherent gap between the two. In the space where security demands curtailing privacy, or where privacy would create a security vacuum, one of the two features must emerge as the more crucial one. The NSA's surveillance program that can record phone conversations and internet activity of American citizens for their own protection is the prime example of this dichotomy. There are generally two sides to the debate.
On one hand there are those who claim that the government has no business sticking its nose into our private lives. Mostly they refer to the Fourth Amendment, which states: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated …" They argue that wiretapping is the modern version of violating the Fourth Amendment, of breaking and entering for an unreasonable search. Further, the people worry that a government with too much power can be dangerous and that it may become unstoppable. The scent of power wafting just under government officials' noses is so tempting that the abuse of such power is too easy ... nearly irresistible.
On the other hand, there are those who reason that security is too important to be brushed under the rug. The government has the responsibility to protect the American people, to ensure their welfare. And they try hard to do so without infringing on citizens' privacy. As President Obama explained just last week, the NSA does not actually listen to what John and Jane Doe are discussing. They "look at phone numbers and durations of calls," and not at specific names or content. If, for security reasons, they want to listen to a conversation, then there exists an entire system to make sure that this is done lawfully. All three branches of the government and a specialized court are responsible for assuring that the wiretapping is carried out in the strict shadow of constitutional law.
The argument goes further to claim that at some point, we have to place our trust in the government. If they tell us that this program is beneficial, that it has produced results, then we need to be able to believe that they are acting in the best interest of the people. Is it worth the risk of not believing that? Is the privacy of your phone call that much more important than the safety of the hundreds of millions of lives that the program is trying to protect? We don't know what we don't know. So we need to accept that what we don't know is being handled in the most efficient, constitutional, honest way possible.
Snowden's argument was that "this is the truth, this is what's happening, and you should decide whether we need to be doing this." But is that the people's job? Isn't that the NSA's concern? When do we draw the line between making every decision on our own, given our limited knowledge and data, and relinquishing some of that control over to the government, to those with more information and access to intelligence?
I think everyone agrees that "you can't have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience." So then the question is: what are you willing to risk?