A frozen society: the long term implications of NSA’s secrets
HFN has been thinking about the historical and future implications of Edward Snowden’s NSA files that have been leaked bit by bit over the past few months. HFN is very worried.
Edward Snowden’s act of handing over classified NSA files to The Guardian and The New York Times has polarised many people into two opposing groups.
The Pro-Snowden group argues that Snowden is a selfless hero, should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and has revealed illegal acts by our security services that our elected officials, who were supposed to control them, were not even aware of.
The Anti-Snowden group argues that Snowden is a naive idealist whose actions are now making society more dangerous by teaching would be terrorists what British and American security services are capable of doing, and by implication, how they can avoid detection to hatch their heinous plots. If you have nothing to hide, they add, you have nothing to worry about.
There are two fundamental flaws with the Anti-Snowden group argument.
First, there are so many laws out there, many archaic and forgotten, that every single citizen is likely to break a law at some point. In addition, in most people’s personal lives they will have some transgression that they want to keep private.
The first flaw allows those in control of the data to use it actively or passively against its citizens. If you are an elected politician the chances are that you have done something wrong at some point in your life or have something private that you want to hide.
Security services could use this information to “screen” politicians and their supporters. This has happened before. J. Edgar Hoover, as the founding Director of the FBI, until his death in 1972, had detailed files on many US politicians, including President Kennedy and President Harry Truman. Both considered firing him. Neither was brave enough. In the early 1950s Joseph McCarthy led a witch hunt of US civil servants, politicians, actors and the like, looking for alleged Communists. Their access to information was amateurish compared to what is possible by the NSA and GCHQ today.
They can also use this information passively. They can simply let politicians know what the security services know about them. The threat of exposure can be a subtle one, making politicians more likely to vote for policies that the security services are in favour of.
The second flaw is that it is frequently necessary to break the law in order to further an important social cause. Slavery was legal in the US south until 1865. Women did not get the vote in the UK until 1928. African – Americans faced huge legalised forms of discrimination until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Interracial marriage only became legal in most US states in 1967. Homosexuality only became legal in all of the US in 2003.
All of these legal changes were preceded by difficulties and civil strife. The activists who were fighting to change society were frequently breaking the law.
Imagine how hard it would be now to lead one of these movements today. All of your communications with other supporters could be monitored. They would know who is connected to who. They would know your private secrets. You could be either rounded up, or co-opted through blackmail.
Occasionally the security services announce that a major terrorist plot has been discovered and stopped. We collectively breathe a sigh of relief at a near disaster avoided.
But the same tools that were used to stop those terrorists could have stopped women from getting the right to vote and black children from going to school with white children.
Sometimes change is needed. By allowing a few unelected people to have control over our secrets we may end up with a frozen, unchanging, society.
This is not a good thing.
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