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Snooping vs. privacy – lessons for an age of transparency

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And what did you expect? Ever since the discovery of printing and glass lenses, each generation (in the West) acquired new prosthetics to expand human vision, memory, and reach. Waves of innovation – from print journalism and libraries to radio, television, and the Internet – promised liberation or oppression. Citizens and societies were disrupted, cajoled, misled ... and adapted.

So, is there a bigger perspective to this latest phase? Look again at Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, or the Swiss bank employees who recently exposed their secretive masters to cleansing light. More significant than any specific revelation is what these knights-errant and countless others represent about our time. Spanning the range from brave whistleblowers revealing the illegal and heinous, all the way to preening indignation junkies, they are just what you’d expect from a society whose pop media endlessly preach eccentric individualism and suspicion of authority.

Which brings us to Lesson No. 1: Oh ye mighty, whether you qualify as conspirators or protectors, you must limit the number of your henchmen.

No array of security clearances and lie detectors will prevent these leaks. Not when your agency employs half a million “trusted” employees and contractors. Nor will it seal the dikes to make an example of some self-styled hero. The more open society becomes, the smaller, more temporary and closely held your secrets had better be.

Want to see the future of unintended consequences? With stunning agility, attorneys in divorce, murder, and other cases have filed demands to access the NSA’s freshly revealed database of US. telephone call traffic links as a vital resource to exculpate their clients. Now picture the world not one year from now, but a decade from now.

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