Friday, June 14, 2013

Secrets, security and freedoms

Does a single individual get to decide when to reveal national security secrets and whom to tell? Edward Snowden, a systems administrator for a private government contractor, answered “yes,” and in that answer is an arrogance that makes him more dangerous than wrong.
    A vigorous, and critically important, debate over the crucial balancing act between freedom and security has begun with Snowden’s revelations of how top-secret government programs are collecting data with digital dragnets. Every American is now faced with questions about what personal rights we’re willing to give up in exchange for more security.
    On that bright, sunny, blue-sky day when two planes hit the World Trade Center, America changed as the towers came down. The Patriot Act that followed pumped steroids into the national intelligence apparatus. Ten years on, guards at both ends of the tunnels leading into New York City stand as reminders that security is not a game.
    New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman rightly predicts that if there were another attack on American soil, particularly with nuclear weapons, civil rights and political freedoms would disappear in the fire. Friedman is also right, however, to ask what the government is doing with the data it’s collecting. He writes, “Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse individual liberties and violate personal privacy?”
    Should Americans care about what the government is doing when we seem unfazed that Google paid over $1 billion for WAZE, a program that identifies and tracks every place our cell phones go? What does it say about our willingness to pay attention when USA Today reported more than seven years ago that the National Security Administration “has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans?”
    As people concerned with living in a free society, Americans should be concerned about these questions. Elected representatives should hold security agencies accountable, and we, in turn, should hold our representatives accountable.
    We should also be clear about when exposing secrets damages U.S. interests. After Snowden fled to Hong Kong, he told the South China Morning Post that the U.S. has been hacking information from Hong Kong and China since 2009. This comes much closer to doing serious damage than did his first revelations.
    When a single actor decides that exposing top secrets is his or her decision to make alone, neither the security nor freedom of the country is well served.

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