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First POST: Exposure

BY Nick Judd | Monday, June 10 2013

On our friendly federal panopticon

  • Where we are so far — It was the IT guy: A Booz Allen Hamilton contractor revealed himself to be the source of consequential leaks describing the broad scale and scope of government access to electronic communications, including emails from Americans. In an interview published by The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald on Saturday, 29-year-old Edward Snowden said his goal was to take the process of deciding what the federal government could or could not access without a warrant, and the true extent of judicial or congressional review for that access, from the halls of secret Washington and into the public arena.

    Supposing for the sake of argument that his goals are what he says they are, the weekend's reading indicates he has valid reasons. The Senate is divided on the issue — between established voices on national security like Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) on one hand and the growing progressive-libertarian caucus including Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on the other. Lawmakers are beginning to question what they have heard from the executive branch and, as the truth or completeness of testimony from the intelligence community comes into question, contesting the administration's continued claim to the privilege of keeping certain information about its surveillance apparatus from public view. Salon reminds us that the secret court established to serve as a check on this power — also behind the veil of the national security state — does not appear to ahve ever rejected a request.

    Last week, Bruce Schneier set the tone for the general argument that "national security" or no, this level of secrecy is inappropriate and represents a direction for state power that is bad for the interests of regular Americans. A tip of the hat to Alex Howard for the link:

    The U.S. government is on a secrecy binge. It overclassifies more information than ever. And we learn, again and again, that our government regularly classifies things not because they need to be secret, but because their release would be embarrassing.

    Knowing how the government spies on us is important. Not only because so much of it is illegal -- or, to be as charitable as possible, based on novel interpretations of the law -- but because we have a right to know. Democracy requires an informed citizenry in order to function properly, and transparency and accountability are essential parts of that. That means knowing what our government is doing to us, in our name. That means knowing that the government is operating within the constraints of the law. Otherwise, we're living in a police state.

    While Snowden claims the mantle of whistleblower, he has a dim view of his future. "The return of this information to the public marks my end," he told a Washington Post reporter before establishing direct contact.

    The counter-argument from inside the national security apparatus is exactly as Snowden and Schneier predicted it would be: Although the rapidly decreasing cost of computing power and data storage has allowed the state to rapidly perfect its application of imperfect laws and occasionally flawed human judgment, it is presented as harmless to law-abiding citizens. The vast scale allowed by data centers like the National Security Agency's new Utah facility is necessary in this frame to see everything, and its secrecy is part of why no one should be disturbed.

    "Indeed you will never be aware of all the things those agencies are doing," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague, "to stop your identity being stolen and to stop a terrorist blowing you up tomorrow."

    Plenty of people on the Internet share Snowden's fatalism in the face of this kind of entitlement. Some of the largest, most powerful companies in the world reluctantly comply with their view. A Tumblr user explains, through photos, that Obama is checking your email. Someone on Twitter wryly notes Booz Allen Hamilton may already be looking for Snowden's replacement. But Snowden's premise was that this is not how the United States is supposed to work; government is derived here from the people, who get to decide what is and is not done in their name. Whatever else he was trying to do and whatever else may happen to him, Snowden has pushed an unprecedented level of information about state surveillance into public view, and started a national debate about secret Washington that has long gone unheld — a conversation that, after watching from within the warrens of that nexus of power and surveillance, he said was sorely needed.

Personal Democracy Forum

  • The complete Personal Democracy Forum 2013 conference archive is coming online as we add the last few videos of main stage talks.

  • Many attendees used Hackpad, a collaborative note-taking tool, to collect and share notes from breakout sessions. A lot of the notes are quite good!

  • PDF's Tumblr fellows, who attended on tickets paid for by the microblogging service, chronicled the conference on Tumblr's Gov blog.

  • Hamish McKenzie on Jim Gilliam:

    "NationBuilder and Gilliam himself are already proving to be examples for the PDF crowd; they have shown that business can be mixed with a social mission.

    Yesterday, NationBuilder announced that it had raised a Series B round of funding that totaled $8 million. The round was led by the Omidyar Network – a global network respected for its socially conscious investing – with Andreessen Horowitz re-upping on its initial investment from last year’s Series A round, which totaled $6 million."

  • Anya Kamenetz on Upworthy's Sara Critchfield:

    What Critchfield called "the feminization of emotion," where feelings are thought to be a trivial female attribute, "has set up a false dichotomy that's distorting our decision making," she said. "We're in danger of rapidly moving toward a monolithic understanding of decision making."

  • Ricardo Bilton on cybersecurity: "If we ever really want to solve the problems of cybersecurity, we first have to figure out what we mean by “cybersecurity.”

    That’s the argument being made by free software activist Camille François, who says that the word “cybersecurity” suffers from a crisis of identity.

    “The problem with ‘cybersecurity’ is that it’s the word that everyone uses. It just means too many things,” François said during a panel discussion at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City today."

  • Erica Berger on PRISM: "In the meantime, the policy and technology community is outraged, but also feeling dejected. Their worst nightmare came true, under a President with whom had much of their support. The real question moving forward is who will lead the charge in support of our privacy as citizens of a democratic country."