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A Sense of Proportion on Snowden (rejoinder to a critic)

June 17, 2013, 10:54 PM

The anonymous author of the Big Think Neurobonkers blog has published a wee reply to my recent posts arguing that NSA leaker Edward Snowden should be prosecuted:

To act on one’s conscience and leak information that is believed to be in the public interest is a noble choice.

The author concludes that Snowden should be “protected,” not prosecuted. S/he laments that whistleblowers can “expect to have their lives ruined and even be tortured” for their noble deeds.

First, it’s worth bearing in mind that I call for no particular punishment for Snowden. I would certainly be opposed to his torture. (Not sure where that was coming from.)

Second, my argument for prosecution had a logic that Mr(s). Neurobonker opted not to engage: governments simply cannot function where employees and contractors with security clearances routinely let their individual judgment be their guide when deciding which top-secret information to divulge to the public. (See the original posts for more development of this point.)

Third, my position is not an endorsement of the NSA’s broad surveillance program. The idea makes me queasy, but like most Americans, I am of two minds on PRISM and haven’t yet formed a definitive perspective on it. And like my colleague Matt Steinglass at the Economist, I wonder why people who are up in arms on the NSA news have been so blasé about the unhidden fact that “Google's servers have been reading the content of Gmail users' e-mails since the service debuted” and feeding them contextual advertisements:

We need to think coherently about what we find scary here. The problem isn't so much that we haven't set up a legal architecture to preserve our online privacy from the government; it's that we haven't set up a legal architecture to preserve our online privacy from anyone at all. If we don't have laws and regulations that create meaningful zones of online privacy from corporations, the attempt to create online privacy from the government will be an absurdity.

Fourth, not all of Snowden’s revelations pass the cost-benefit analysis test. Not all are necessarily "noble" disclosures. David Firestone points this out in a good post at the Times:

In the last few days...Mr. Snowden’s leaks have taken a questionable turn. He told the South China Morning Post that the United States had hacked into many Chinese computer systems, including those at universities and businesses. And yesterday he showed documents to the Guardian revealing that the N.S.A. and its British counterpart had spied on politicians from around the world who attended the 2009 G-20 summit in London.

These documents are of a different and more dubious order than the first ones. Like all leaks, their benefits have to be weighed against their potential harm, and in this case, it’s difficult to see what the benefits are. The N.S.A. was created to spy on overseas communications, and there is no serious debate about whether it should be doing so. Revealing that it was monitoring the computer traffic of foreign countries, and listening to their leaders, sheds no particularly useful light on the N.S.A.’s mission, or what most people believed its activities to be.

Fifth, regardless of where I end up on PRISMand I think the debate over this program is complex enough that neither the ACLU’s reflexive rejection nor Dick Cheney’s easy endorsement can resolve it at this early datemy point about prosecuting leakers stands. Maybe, if Snowden is apprehended and stands trial, he’ll mount an effective defense none of us can dream up at the moment. Maybe he’ll be found guilty and later receive a pardon. Maybe he'll never be caught. But I stand by my original point. It is ludicrous to expect a government whose secrets have been unlawfully reported to the world to “protect” the man who leaked them.



A Sense of Proportion on Sn...

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