PRSM Leaks, Whistleblows, and David Brin on Privacy

I’ve been trying to articulate what I think about the NSA document leak revelations (in my usual, wholly non topical fashion) and if nothing else; I think that reality increasingly resembles a William Gibson novel.

There is a tendency to react with smug dismissiveness; those ‘in the know’ have ‘suspected’ that this sort of thing was par for the course (I had a father who read and talked extensively about works like The Puzzle Palace).  But these most recent reveals are not speculation; rather they serve as confirmation of what the NSA is doing now.  These documents potentially provide -to steal military parlance- ‘Actionable Intelligence’ for the citizenry.  So what action do we -as citizens of a republic- need to take?

On that, I’m not really sure.  Agitate for change? Encrypt every communication? Nothing?

I fear privacy is a fight that might already be lost; not because the citizenry is weak or the government employees bad, but simply because of the structural realities and biases. It take enormous efforts to keep your information from being copied (just ask the entertainment industry).  Sensors, copying and data crunching will only become cheaper.  Certainly we can have a legal regime and cultural norms that promote privacy; but I’m not sure these can continue to stand in a world where microdot networked cameras cost 50 cents (which isn’t really a stretch from the world we live in now).  Which is not to say that privacy isn’t a worthy goal and worth fighting for, but we truly have to be careful regarding the battles we chose.

Of late, I’ve been fascinated by David Brin’s more nuanced views regarding privacy, transparency and where we need to focus our attention on changing our culture, our laws, and our norms.  For Brin, the essential problem is information asymmetry. More or less, the various security agencies of the world claim it is right to know everything about everyone while always claiming that no one can know their own workings ‘for safety.’  Perhaps what we need more than Privacy is true(r) transparency, true accountability.

Increasingly, we will have to rely on ‘whistleblowers’ who -at great personal risk- break the law to try and mitigate some of the entrenched information asymmetry.  More and more, ‘leaks’ are the only opportunity for citizens (or even our representatives it seems) to evaluate the efficacy of our spying apparti, the only chance for some form of accountability. 

And whether or not privacy is dead, now more than ever every citizen of every democracy on earth must be able to see, judge, and act on information about what their governments are doing in ‘their’ name.  How fortunate we are that there are individuals willing to risk everything to give us that opportunity.

It’s why this petition to pardon Snowden is so important.

Edit: This video illustrates for me why it is so difficult to feel as thought we have political efficacy: we elected a man who later reversed so many of his positions around this issue.  And it feels like this is always the case…



  1. Hi. good synopsis. Except that I don’t think privacy is “dead.” But it can be saved only if we all see well enough to catch at least the casual peeping toms in the act.
    I’ll be posting a big “NSA piece” soon. But here’s the core recommendation:

    The solution is to answer surveillance with sousveillance, or looking back at the mighty from below. Holding light accountable with more light. Letting our watchdogs see, but imposing choke-chain limits on what they do. That distinction is crucial. Instead of obsessing on what the FBI and NSA may know, let’s demand fierce tools of supervision, to keep the dog from becoming a wolf.
    Can this be done without tactically hampering the protector caste? Start by replacing the secret, star-chamber FISA court with one that is confidential, but adversarialy-contested and accountable, as any true court should be . Put a short time limit on the gag orders in National Security Letters, making them less terrifyingly Orwellian. Take all of today’s inspectors general out of bed with the agencies they oversee, and have them answer instead to an Inspector General of the United States (IGUS) whose first duty is to the law, and to us. Even more radical: let’s update an old concept, the Grand Jury, composed of citizens selected for both discretion and diversity, who then serve brief terms watching the watchers on our behalf, ensuring that protectors only protect. And aggressively, militantly, make sure that the Freedom of Information Act applies to Big Data, not just old fashioned documents.
    Above all, stop obsessing on lines in the sand, continuously fussing over redefining “warrantless searches.” Trying to impose limits to what inherently cannot be limited, the ability of the mighty to see. Turn instead to the truly scary parts of the Patriot Act, the parts that let them peer at us unsupervised.


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