Enter The Leaker

“I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions … I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant,” – Edward Snowden, the leaker of the NSA surveillance program. Video interview with Glenn Greenwald here.

Some helpful perspective (polling in April of this year) as to the broader impact of these revelations:

Only 20 percent of people said they believed the government had gone too far in restricting civil liberties in the fight against terrorism, while 26 percent said it had not gone far enough and 49 percent said the balance was about right. In 2011, the share of those worried about losing civil liberties (25 percent) was larger than that favoring more intrusive government approach (17 percent).

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.