How much of our modern life is digitally constructed? How much of our day-to-day research is done online? Much of our record-keeping, financial transactions, commerce, communications and of course, social media rely on access to the digital realm where they reside. Our entertainment and news are utterly dependent on the uncorrupted digital transfer of information.
If the NSA leaker Edward Snowden is telling the truth, then our government has the ability to see all of those things and more, at the root level. According to Snowden, our government has total access, in real time, across all platforms.
I hear much lamentation over the loss of privacy, and the counter-argument swiftly given is that only those with something to hide need worry. What is getting lost here is the unfortunate reality that we likely have less to fear from what information may be taken out of the digital stream and misused, than what information might be placed into the stream imperceptibly, across all platforms, in real-time.
Realities could be constructed. Media news cycles could be managed by leaving trails that create desired narratives. Research might be misdirected toward dead-ends or desired results. Reputations could be enhanced or diminished, created or destroyed, with no one the wiser. The political power created by such a tool would be unequalled in human history.
Our government has long operated similar surveillance programs. The NSA operation is not a shiny new thing, it is merely a very powerful thing grown to unthinkable proportions. Before 9/11 these functions were spread out across a number of agencies.
While it might have been possible to misdirect the resources of a portion of government against a political enemy, it was quite difficult to do so without leaving a trail, even with the turf battles and refusals to share information between agencies that were a hallmark of our intelligence community. These circumstances comprised the “wall” former Clinton administration official Jamie Gorelick spoke of (and in fact created) and it needed to be breached for efficiency’s sake.
But where we only needed a door – albeit one with a sturdy lock – we destroyed the entire wall. Now, the monumental power that comes with having root access to the very backbone of the global internet, is directed by a monolithic security apparatus operating behind an impenetrable veil of secrecy with little meaningful oversight and no real checks on abuse.
What is the likelihood that the most opaque administration in our lifetime (gasp!) might be unable to resist the temptation to fiddle with our realities? This being the same bunch that peddled automatic weapons to drug cartels, targeted conservatives with the power of the IRS, and to this day, stonewalls investigators looking into Benghazi.
This is too much power for any government to have without extraordinary safeguards. The capability described in Snowden’s leak is a genie that will not be put back into the bottle. Its utility is too great and its power too vast. It is the “One Ring,” from the Tolkien tale, and it must meet the same fate.
Abolish the Department of Homeland Security, break up much of the NSA infrastructure and devolve those functions back to the multiple agencies from whence they came. At least then, when someone seeks to turn this power against a foe, real or imagined, there will be numerous checks to prevent unconstitutional behavior due to the sheer number of agencies and people involved.
Clearly this will not prevent all abuses, but dividing power such as this, is our only means of controlling it. Is Snowden a hero? I wouldn’t go that far yet, but I would certainly describe him as the right guy in the right place, at the right time in our Republic’s history, however short that history may yet turn out to be.
While the founders couldn’t have predicted a capability such as that leaked by Snowden, they did imagine and account for the mentality and motives of people who would seek to misuse it. While the tools may have improved, the workmen are just as fallible as ever, which is why we must follow Jefferson’s advice and “bind down [their] hands with the chains of the Constitution.”