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More light on the NSA

Some government actions must be clandestine. But US citizens are being told so little about government spying on them that they lack the information they need to have an informed opinion about it.

Photos of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), and President Obama are printed on the front pages of English and Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong. Snowden, who is now in Hong Kong, leaked details of top-secret US surveillance programs and may face charges in the US.

Bobby Yip/Reuters

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By one count, sales of George Orwell’s "1984” have shot up nearly 10,000 percent recently on The classic novel that spawned the phrase “Big Brother is watching you” tells the story of a totalitarian government that closely spies on the lives of each and every citizen.

The obvious reason for this sudden interest is the news that the US National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting data on the phone calls of Americans, regardless of whether they are suspected of doing anything wrong. Americans may be turning to literature to speculate about what it all means because the US government apparently is going to have very little to say about the matter, citing security concerns and the war on terrorism.

That surge of interest in Orwell's work, however, isn’t reflected in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post, which found that a majority of Americans (56 percent) say the NSA’s tracking of millions of telephone records is fine with them if it helps to fight terrorism. Americans seem to be getting more comfortable living in a world in which where you go, who you associate with, your religious beliefs, what you buy, your sexual preference, and much more are all shiny needles that today can be picked out of the haystacks of data available to the government’s computer farms.

Whether Edward Snowden, a US government contractor, was right to blow the whistle on NSA snooping could supply a whole college ethics course with questions to debate. He most likely has broken at least one or more laws. But he also must be judged in the light of the tradition of civil disobedience, when individuals take actions deemed illegal in service of what they see as exposing a great wrong.


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