Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Privacy is not the issue

At least it's not the big issue.

In May Edward Snowden disclosed the Nation Security Agency's (NSA) mass surveillance activities on both foreign and domestic citizens. In June U.S. federal prosecutors charged him with espionage and theft of government property. Ever since there has been debate over the importance of Snowden's secrets and whether he should be viewed as a hero or villain.

Curiously, though charged with espionage, Edward Snowden's disclosures initiated a congressional investigation into the NSA. Like other times U.S. intelligence agencies have been investigated (Pentagon Papers, Church Committee, 2005 New York Times report on warrantless wiretapping), the investigation found illegal activities, cover ups, lying to congress, and the refusal to reveal documents. This time, among other revelations, Congress found that the NSA falsely certified that its analysts conducted searches only with telephone numbers that had a "reasonable, articulate suspicion" of terrorism. There also seems to be some question over whether anyone really knew what was going on or the scope of the surveillance activities.

In my mind, the most curious part is casting the debate as an invasion of privacy issue. Here's a Washington Post article in July. Aside from Edward Snowden losing support, the entire poll is centered on national security versus personal privacy. I can see why Snowden's support wanes. Most people have nothing to hide. While I'd love to keep my love letters private, that is not so important as national security.

As an aside, I love the phase 'national security'. It is a rallying phrase. It conjures up images of defending our American life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in a very fragile world. But often it is nothing more than covering up actions by our own intelligence agencies for doing the exact opposite—of trying to destroy the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of others, either in this country or elsewhere.

So the issue is not about privacy. It is about accountability. And here I will reintroduce something we have all seen before. It is, perhaps, the most shocking and tested human trait as demonstrated by the many Milgram experiments and innumerable historic examples of what happens when humans are relieved of accountability—either from believing that a superior is taking responsibility, or that the greater good of some agency or ideal relieves them of responsibility. When this happens, we are capable of the most horrendous actions.

If intelligence agencies and more specifically the agents themselves aren't held accountable for their actions, we will continue to have law breaking, lying, covering up, and unthinkable acts directed against others. It's who we are.

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