Multiple questions surround Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the revelations put out this week from Snowden. The first question is whether or not this data is really a revelation. My take on this is a resounding no. The IT community, among many others, has been screaming for years that there has been governmental data capture that overreaches the law. And while there are provisions in the increasingly-badly-named Patriot Act that would allow this, there are questions about the constitutionality of that act that have yet to be answered. If there is a good outcome to the current brou-ha-ha, it is the possibility that there will be a Supreme Court decision on the matter.
One of the many truly strange occurrences in this matter really points out the need for a national conversation is that people as diverse as Glenn Beck, Rand Paul, and Michael Moore are in agreement on one side of this issue and Nancy Pelosi, Dick Cheney, and Lindsay Graham can be found on the other side. This diversity of opinion, that shatters alliances across the board, points out the absolute need for a national discussion on the matter.
So what is the discussion?
In one corner is the national desire for security. We live in an extremely dangerous world. Keeping America safe in the post 9/11 world is understandably an extremely high priority activity and this type of surveillance is very useful in that endeavor. The intelligence-gathering community, despite any assurances to the contrary, is fully able to read every electronic text communication and listen to every electronic audio communication you or I engage in. Imagine if you will the ability to find every instance of the use of the word Jihad in every communication medium in or out of the nation, then sorting those in order of likelihood of action. Yes, this is an extremely useful and powerful tool and removing it from the arsenal would make stopping terrorist activity significantly more difficult. Not impossible, but much more difficult.
In the other corner, we have potential abuse of this power and a constitutional guarantee of privacy. To describe this possible abuse, we need only look at possibilities in the press. Imagine a scenario where a politician turns into a McCarthy-style jerk. If a reporter should get a hot tip on the politician's fondness for little boys along with the favorite haunt and pickup style, and this current system remains in place, it becomes very easy for the politician's staff to be on the lookout for this data in the communications database; and thus, the story (and likely the reporter and the leaker) never sees the light of day. In the realm of personal communications, imagine that you are involved in a combat simulation game with an online friend and you happen to send an e-mail saying something about "bombing" your opponent. Taken out of context, you now have a very real possibility of being prosecuted as a terrorist. The possibility of this type of abuse is very real indeed.
In short, both sides are right ... And both sides are wrong, very nearly equally so. So am I writing this article just to expose a conundrum? Hardly.
Here is my opinion on the matter:
Anyone who has any expectation of privacy on the internet is delusional. I used to think that the only exception to this rule was email until I realized that the servers which store and send email are owned by private entities and you use them at the sufferance of those entities and under an extensive contractual agreement, essentially signing away any privacy you may have thought to expect. We do these things voluntarily and without thinking about them. That is the problem.
If you wish to have privacy in your e-mails, there are three steps you must take. First, you cannot use a public e-mail server, like Yahoo or Google or Microsoft. You have to host your own email service. Its expensive and difficult and you'll need the services of an IT professional with some regularity. Second, you'll have to avoid either sending email to or receiving email from any of the aforementioned public servers. To do so will give that email to the powers that be and expose your server to "access" by anyone with the wherewithal to bypass your security. And finally, you'll have to send all of your communications using 128 bit security encoding ... or better. And doing all of this is almost certain to put you on a watch list. If you're hiding what you do, you must have something to hide.
If you want to have privacy on the internet, once again you're delusional. The purpose of the World Wide Web is to transmit information far and wide, with equality around the world. If it's on the web, it's there to be shared with everyone. If you’re worried about privacy, stay off the web.
So what's the real answer here? In the past, SCOTUS has ruled that privacy only exists if a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. I suspect that if the court were asked the question of whether or not the capture and examination of this data is constitutional, the answer would be yes it is, because no one has any reasonable expectation of privacy on the internet.
So we get back to "is Edward Snowden a hero or a jerk?" For me, the answer is HERO in bold letters. Not because he exposed something I didn't already know about, but because he successfully started a national conversation. In that conversation is the real and lasting answer to this conundrum. The answer, as always, is somewhere in the middle. Both extremes are wrong because both extremes are right, and we can't be on both ends of this matter. I see a great deal of hope in this conversation and in the truly strange bedfellows it has engendered. This conversation is long past due and I hope we will answer these questions as a country instead of as individuals.