I recently wrote about the decline in what used to be called privacy. The definition of privacy is mutable, ever-changing. What was considered private 100 years ago, even 20 years ago, is practically non-existent today. As I wrote in 2006, before the iPhone and all devices that have followed, “Technology Increases, Privacy Declines.” One of the characteristics of the Shift Age is that all of us now live with two realities: the physical reality and screen reality.
The uproar around Mr. Snowden’s disclosure of PRISM information and the NSA’s action must be looked at within current context, which is complex. We have ever more connectivity, ever more mobile computing power, an explosive use of social media based upon sharing, fear of terrorism, ever more information being created with ever more intelligent devices and chips and an ever greater integration of humanity globally as a result of all of this.
Edward Snowden is a whistle blower. It is because of him that we now know that the personal communications of all Americans and many citizens of other countries have been monitored. His revelations immediately caused NSA officials and others to “revise” earlier comments made about the program. The government response to Snowden’s revelations confirmed both that (a) these disclosures were correct and (b) that our government officials lied to us.
We now have learned about the secretive FISA “court” that must approve requests for surveillance, and that it is only the government that argues before the court – there is no ‘defense’ in the situation. This is not exactly the checks and balances system our founding fathers envisioned. It has been reported that in the last 33 years, there have been 33,000 surveillance requests made by various intelligence agencies; only 11 have been denied. It could be said that the military industrial complex President Eisenhower warned us against has set up its own secretive Supreme Court, but with no counter-balance and with no transparency.
Snowden is not a hero. If he was a hero, he would have contacted the ACLU and a couple of publicity seeking top-tier defense attorneys, and he would have used this high level support to return to the United States. This would have provoked constant front page, top-of-the-newscast coverage of this issue. Think of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.
I wish Snowden had taken this route, as it would have forced a much deeper conversation. Those supporting Snowden would constantly be asking, “If Snowden broke a law, what exactly was that law and who of our elected officials approved it?” This would cause extremely high levels of squirming and linguistic hedging by many in Washington.
It is extremely disappointing that there has not been a larger, deeper national conversation about privacy, surveillance and what has and is going on. Predictably, some members of congress are expressing outrage yet others are not. ‘Freedom’ and ‘protect’ are two words that are (and will be) used a lot. Politicians know these two words will trigger Pavlovian responses. That isn’t a conversation; this is just rhetoric.
Since George Orwell’s 1984 was published in 1948, we know that governments will routinely create enemies to both unite the citizenry and spy on them at the same time. [It is appropriate that sales of George Orwell’s “1984” went up 5,800% on Amazon the first week of the Snowden disclosures.] The common enemies in the last 100 years have been fascism, communism and, now, terrorism. All were valid enemies of the United States that triggered a lot of invalid spying on private citizens. However, PRISM feels a lot like the SS or the Stasi or the KGB of our enemies that wanted to take away freedom. Have we become our enemies?
It is clear to me that there will be ever less privacy as we go forward. The accelerating electronic connectedness of the planet, one of the three forces of the Shift Age, and the technologies that amplify this connectedness point to ever more personal information being shared and being available. It serves no purpose to be Luddites about such technologies.
What we need to do as a country and as members of the human race is to talk about the new landscape of today. The privacy of today is much less than that of 100, 25 or even 10 years ago, and is much more than 10 years from now. There is no turning back. We have already given up the privacy of our grandparents and parents. Instead, we need to have a refinement of the ethics of living in a world with no privacy, the one our children will inhabit. The privacy of the past is going away; we need to think through how that affects ethics and behavior. Individuals, corporations and governments must open a discussion of what privacy means in a civil society for the 21st Century.