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… there is usually a good reason

Last week Edward Snowden was finally granted temporary asylum in Russia. If he is the man he claims to be, namely a supporter of democracy and an advocate of human rights and, especially, of the right to privacy, then he is unlikely to feel happy about this turn of events. On matters of surveillance Russia is as bad, if not worse, than the United States. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, was a former official of the KGB, the most feared and hated security agency of the Cold War Period.

It should not come as a surprise that very few countries have been willing to consider granting asylum to Snowden. That just goes to show how widespread surveillance practices are. In order to run PRISM, the NSA is dependent on the collaboration of other national security agencies as well as that of corporate actors like Facebook and Google.

The global threat of terrorism has been employed to justify these massive incursions into the private sphere. The recent closing of several American Embassies around the world has been useful as an illustration of what it is presumably all about.

Others point to the declining value of privacy in modern societies: if people have no second thoughts when disclosing details of their private lives in talk shows, on Facebook or on YouTube, why should they mind—or anyone else for that matter—if their telephones and emails are tapped? (1)

There is a grain of truth in both of the above arguments. Besides, there is also no doubt that more (or new) intelligence can be gained from the fast processing of huge data sets. Let us not forget that this is what underpins advances in modern science and technology, including genetics and synthetic biology; the advertising success of the Internet; as well as the recent strategic turn of political campaigning. (2)

And yet, this does not legitimize surveillance programs like PRISM. The NSA, like other national security agencies, is a public institution and as such cannot be exempt from democratic controls. There is—unfortunately—a case to be made for surveillance. However, this is not a question of either/or; but a question of degree and, most significantly, of accountability.

Respect for privacy remains one of the pillars of democratic societies. That is so even at times when societies do not seem much concerned about it. Failure to regulate the use of private data information—whether for surveillance or other purposes—is characteristic of totalitarian regimes. An inquiry into NSA surveillance practices and a review of current regulation is, therefore, the minimum that can be expected of the Obama administration.

 

(1) On the changing role of publicity and a thoughtful reflection on surveillance politics, see Jill Lepore ‘The Prism: Privacy in an Age of Publicity’ in the June 2013 issue of The New Yorker

(2) On the use of big data by the Obama political campaign see Sascha Issenberg’s feature article in the December 2012 issue of MIT Technology Review entitled ‘A More Perfect Union’

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