Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Some quick thoughts on PRISM.

I originally intended to use this blog to talk politics, but when that proved too depressing I just wrote about movies instead. But in the middle of all the talk of government overreach, I haven't heard anyone seriously discussing what I consider to be the overarching issue here. Talking about how much data we want the government to have is important, but the real problem that we have here -- which no one seems interested in discussing-- is the fact that these leaks by Snowden, Manning, and others reveal exactly what kind of information is being classified. This information, on even cursory examination, shows absolutely no pressing security reason to be hidden from the American people.
So the Government is collecting metadata on phone records? Well, it's clearly legal, and has clear benefits which might genuinely increase our safety. It also has potentially terrifying implications for abuse. The balance between these two goals is a difficult one to achieve, and we will only manage to find it through a serious public debate. But guess what: we never had the debate. The debate was denied to us, not because knowledge of this issue could be useful to our enemy, but because debate is the enemy of expedience and and convenience for the NSA.
This material, then, was classified for entirely fallacious reasons, essentially because having it become public would be a public relations hassle for the US. security community. That is, on its face, a complete betrayal of the entire concept of the State's legitimate interest in secrecy. It demonstrates beyond any doubt that there is massive, unconscionable misuse of the classification going on, rampant throughout the government. We now have leakers from several unconnected branches of government which show similar patterns of misconduct, clearly demonstrating that this problem is not only widespread and systemic, but that it seems to be going completely unaddressed.
Each leak reveals important information that deserves public discussion in its own right. But none of them ever got it, thanks to a government culture which allows people to use classification as a convenient excuse to avoid defending their decisions to the American people. And this is only the tip of the iceberg; it's a virtual certainty that the government is hiding many more things from public discussion which deserve serious scrutiny. We need to focus our efforts of reforming the classification system to prevent this sort of abuse or we'll face the cumulative effect of too many dangerous decisions going unquestioned for lack of knowledge. One only needs to look at the United States v Reynolds, the 1952 very first supreme court case where the US government claimed its need to keep strategic tactical information secret to see that this kind of abuse has been with us since the very beginning. Without addressing this power balance, the individual leaked documents are almost immaterial. If we truly want a democracy, this should be the paramount issue of our interest: ensuring that the debates are had at all.

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