, Salem, MA


August 6, 2013

Column: Edward Snowden deserves begrudging gratitude

The case of Edward Snowden is complicated, isn’t it?

Snowden aroused considerable consternation with his revelation that the government has been amassing a vast trove of so-called “metadata,” records of the frequency and duration — though not of the content — of millions of phone calls made by Americans.

As it turns out, much more than phone calls is involved. On July 31, the British newspaper The Guardian reported on a National Security Agency program called XKeyscore, which provides analysts with access to essentially everything that users do on the Internet, including emails, online chats and browsing histories.

This issue is readily reduced to the conflict between liberty and privacy and security. More than once, Benjamin Franklin has been cited in connection with this case: “Those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

But this high-minded 18th-century aphorism probably oversimplifies modern realities that Franklin would have had a hard time imagining.

The brilliant visionary might have had trouble understanding modern concentrations of power — for example, a high-powered semiautomatic weapon with a 30-round magazine or a portable nuclear bomb — that give a relatively small number of people the ability to wreak widespread destruction and havoc.

Further, Franklin, the genius behind the American postal system, probably would have had difficulty envisioning our astonishingly sophisticated worldwide network of communications, which gives bad people extraordinary capacity to develop, coordinate and execute catastrophes and gives good people the capacity to stop them.

This context is important to our estimation of Snowden’s actions and the government’s extensive collection of metadata.

Nevertheless, our hair-trigger outrage over this indiscriminate data mining — how dare they! — is probably healthy, and it comes from both the left and the right. Whether we’re doing anything wrong or not, we hold our privacy in considerable regard, and we have an inherent suspicion when other people, especially the government, know too much about our business.

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