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Snooping vs. privacy – lessons for an age of transparency

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Lesson No. 2: Authorities, you can either fight this new era or embrace it.

Those who resist the trend will follow the obstinate reflexes of history and human nature. But the future will be won by agile ones applying judo, not sumo. Sure, earnest officials in our professional protector caste still need tactical secrecy, short-term and targeted, for many tasks. But it is foolish to ignore the benefits of a secular trend toward an open world. Consider: Among the foes who would do us grievous harm – from terrorists to hostile states to criminal gangs – can you name one that’s not fatally allergic to light? In contrast, modern democracies find light occasionally irksome, generally bracing, and mostly healthy. That difference is the paramount strategic consideration of the 21st century.

Put it another way: No combination of FBI or CIA intelligence coups could possibly hamper the schemes of external foes more thoroughly than for those rival powers to suffer wave after wave of their own Edward Snowdens.

Lesson No. 3: Bad things like 9/11 happen.

When they do, members of our protector caste will claim they might have thwarted calamity if provided greater powers to see, know, analyze, anticipate, and reach. Amid panic and public alarm, those powers will be granted. Top-down surveillance will augment in a forward ratchet that’s hard to rewind. Sure, a decade after 9/11 we may now curb (a little) some warrantless surveillance by the NSA and FBI. But such efforts miss the point, because they buy into the notion of a dichotomy – a zero-sum tradeoff – between security and freedom.

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