• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


The Latest from Snowden

Seeking the right balance.

November 24, 2013

As gossip-column shocking as U.S. surveillance of Angela Merkel’s phone was, the real news is in the recent Snowden disclosure about the NSA’s vision document.  Here is The New York Times summary:

Written as an agency mission statement with broad goals, the five-page document said that existing American laws were not adequate to meet the needs of the N.S.A. to conduct broad surveillance in what it cited as “the golden age of Sigint,” or signals intelligence. “The interpretation and guidelines for applying our authorities, and in some cases the authorities themselves, have not kept pace with the complexity of the technology and target environments, or the operational expectations levied on N.S.A.’s mission,” the document concluded.

That sounds about right to me. That vision is what a National Security Agency should be doing. By the same token, that vision presents the challenge before us, both United States and global citizens. We want to be safe from criminals and terrorists. And we want personal autonomy and political self-determination.  Both “security” as in protection from harm, and “privacy,” a fundamental human right, are essential to those goals of ordered liberty.

I am trying to figure out what is the Time’s take on this challenge. I note with interest that the article, an unusual three Internet pages worth of information, is co-written by Laura Poitrus, one of Snowden’s messengers. Did she simply supply the document? Did she write the text?  Did she approve or disapprove of anything in draft form?  I understand why the Times cultivated a relationship with her: that tact was smart and inspired.  I am just curious: is there a price for the contact?  One that exceeds the amount by what would have been lost if the Times had not pursued personal contacts for this on-going story?

Being the most influential newspaper in the United States and a big player in world media, this is not an idle question. I, for one, would think it a shame, not to mention a missing of the point, if the Snowden disclosures resulted in a pendulum swing of privacy laws.  First we allow surveillance, then we don’t.  The point that approach misses, and the one that it would seem this NSA mission document gets, is that the Internet communications have completely changed the governance game.  Not only is just about everything a functioning person does in this world able to be tracked, stored, mined, atomized, and recombined in unimaginable configurations – with equally unimaginable consequences – but we, U.S. and global citizens, have not begun to construct an equitable and humane governance framework for the information political economy that factors market, social and cultural dimensions into its calculus. 

Therefore, a knee-jerk reaction against this mission document, no matter how much of a privacy advocate I fancy myself to be, is not my position.  I seek a means to understand and instantiate tomorrow’s privacy, not yesterday’s.  It is not the role of the NSA to address governance, except to note the laws that the agency perceives are in its way to obtaining the kind of information that is available in the Internet technologies of today.  It is the job of Congress primarily and the courts secondarily to address these concerns domestically and the work of … who exactly to think about this for the good of global society?

With its many legal scholars, computer science technologists, cultural studies and communication professors as well as business school and economists -- to name only a few of the obvious disciplines that jump to mind -- that discussion is one that higher education can champion, no matter what the New York Times has to say. 


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