I’ve been really busy and haven’t been able to work on this project. This has given me some time to reflect on the Snowden revelations, the responses, and what it all means. Today, there are “Restore the Fourth” rallies across the country. Here is one in DC
I’m no expert on the 4th amendment to the US Constitution, but this text is pretty clear:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
At the time these words were written, the intent was clearly that “the people” should be free from the government doing warrantless “searches” – exactly what the NSA does today. This is on the face of it, the US government directly violating the law. Even though the framers had no way of conceiving of the internet, or email or cellphones, their intent was very clear – they wanted to prevent this type of abuse of power by governments that is happening now. When the people’s lives are transparent to government, but the actions of the government are hidden from the people, we have a strange inversion of the notion of public and private. Private citizens are the ones about whom everything is known. Public officials are the ones who are amassing secret stores of data about private citizens, justified by secret interpretations of the law which are classified and cannot be uttered in public. Our founding fathers had a different notion of how this country would be run – by private citizens, whose private lives are not the subject of government searches and seizures, expressing their will publicly about public policy issues that are discussed openly.
From Barack Obama on down, many government officials have said they want to have a public debate about surveillance technologies. Of course this position was only stated after all the dirty laundry came into view from the Snowden disclosures, which makes such statements somewhat unbelievable. It will take more pressure from below. It will take more Edward Snowdens, and more Glenn Greenwalds, and they will come. We are humans, and we will not be crushed by the machines of power.
Over the years, I have been a strong advocate of free speech, and first amendment proponent. Back in 1992 I was making audio for video games. I recorded everything president Bush said off the tv. Under the name Tone Def, I released Bushwack, an electronic parody song of reconstructed phrases of the president. It received massive airplay, opened many people’s eyes to this new technology, and I never made a cent off it, because it was not condoned by the big music companies, who at the time, stil controlled music distribution. I really didn’t know what would happen with Bushwack – I thought of it as an important test of the limits of free speech. I didn’t know if someone would come after me, but I felt that was less important than making that artistic statement. Me, a powerless individual, could rearrange the words of the most powerful man on earth, making him speak the truth. Even if I couldn’t make money off it, I could get it onto the radio, and participate in the national debate. I was trying an extreme form of “speech” and it worked. I followed this up with the Clinton parody Rock The House and the GW Bush parody Fuzzy Math for which I also made a flash video and released the entire database of audio for others to use as The George W Bush Public Domain Audio Archive
In each case, my intention was to push the bounds of free speech as far as I could – to use technology as an equalizing mechanism, to use the words of the US President to illuminate his own shortcomings in a humorous manner. The fact that I could do this without getting thrown in jail or worse proved to me that we live in a country with a healthy respect for the first amendment.
But when it comes to National Security, and classified information, our government is not so permissive. Anyone with direct knowledge of NSA activities does not apparently enjoy the rights of the first amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It is one thing to have a massive surveillance state such as we do, and clearly it violates the fourth amendment, but I would say, even more importantly, it violates the first amendment. The people who know how the system of surveillance works are legally prohibited from talking about it – in direct violation of the first amendment. This is important because it means we cannot have democratic control over such institutions, as pervasive and powerful as they are. If we cannot even have an open discussion about these systems, we cannot decide as a democracy, if they are good, worthwhile, or effective. Edward Snowden, like any American, has a right of free speech, which is outlined in our constitution. I agree that we do not want to have every government contractor who has a problem with something leaking it to the press. There should be automatic punishments for such things. It would be the role of a Chief Executive, recognizing the clear public interest in the disclosures, to pardon a man like Snowden. But this would only happen in a democracy where top officials served the public interest with integrity, humility, and respect for our most basic and important laws. In the American fantasy, we still live in such a country, but the secret accumulation of centralized power to snoop on all Americans shows we are much closer to a “turnkey totalitarian state” as former NSA official William Binney put it.
The time for a national debate on these technologies is now. Ten years from now, there may be systems in place that prevent leaks like the one that opened up this debate. Even more terrifying is to think about where a system like this is heading. Imagine a future where we have seen terrorist acts of unprecedented destruction. They will be so dangerous, and the stakes so high, the system will be automated to make sure it can respond quickly enough to the danger. When an algorithm scanning NSA databases identifies a positive imminent threat, it will send automated systems(eg robots) to neutralize the threat. At that point, humans are not even part of the equation. We will have completed our historic transformation from citizens, to consumers, to casualties. This will be the subject of another post. Happy fourth of July!!