NSA Leaker

Obama boosters like Bob Cesca and conservatives like Andrew Sullivan alike seem inclined to dismiss whistleblower Edward Snowden as needlessly disruptive to effective government, and perhaps only an attention-seeker:

Mulling this over as the facts have come in, I remain underwhelmed. Big Data is a core tool for terror prevention and is less dangerous, it seems to me, than many other counter-terrorist programs (like occupying foreign countries, killing people with drones, etc.). Of course, you may believe that we need to end counter-terrorism altogether, because it is a hyped and over-blown threat. But say that in that case – and make the argument that we will be better off without this kind of data-gathering being allowed, and safer. Or that our freedom is worth a few terror incidents.

I’m sympathetic to the latter point of view (see Imaginationland). But then I’m not the president of a country targeted by such religious mass murderers. But what seems inescapable to me are two related things: this data is out there, and the private sector has it. It’s the first real data of its kind to be seeking computer algorithms, not necessarily content of phone conversations. It works, which is partly how Obama got re-elected. And any system of such surveillance is inherently much easier to expose than ever before. There are more Edward Snowdens out there. And they have real power – just a different and asymmetric kind. In the end, the potential for disruption is as great as the potential for knowledge.

I can’t help but recall that one assertion of Julian Assange’s manifesto was that the system was bound to fall apart from within.

On the other hand, Juan Cole notes that unlike the Second Amendment, “the Fourth Amendment is never interpreted in a fundamentalist manner”:

Note that you can go to the Post Office and put a first class letter in an envelope in the hands of the government itself to deliver for you, and the government cannot open that letter without a warrant. I mean, it is actually in their custody, and they don’t have access to its contents. Because the Fourth Amendment is held by the judges to apply to first class land mail. Getting a warrant would require the government agents to be very specific about the letter they wanted to open, and to give pretty good evidence that a law is being broken.

But since the misnamed PATRIOT USA Act, the government is asserting that it can look at your email, telephone records, etc., without a warrant and at will. No precise specification. No evidence of wrong-doing. This scatter-shot snooping can take place even though your email has nothing to do with the government– you haven’t given it to them, you are typically a private person using a private company with an expectation of privacy.

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