Let’s have a referendum on the NSA

Is the internet vital for whistleblowing?


The internet is often portrayed as the WMD (weapon of mass dissemination) for whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Journalists talk of a new era of transparency.


Yet whistleblowing is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the US has had far higher-ranking whistleblowers, whose actions have been seemingly more impactful, even, than those of Snowden or Manning. ‘Deep Throat’, the source for the Washington Post’s revelations of the Watergate Scandal that led President Nixon to resign, turned out to be the deputy director of the FBI Mark Felt. In another famous case, Jeffrey Wigand, VP of R&D at Brown & Williamson, revealed the company had deliberately altered its tobacco blend to increase nicotine content, and in doing was instrumental in bringing the US’s leading tobacco companies to a $206bn settlement.


Snowden and Manning, like Deep Throat and Wigand, could probably have had a similar impact without the internet, solely by accessing the mainstream press. It is not haphazard that Snowden’s means of dissemination for his leaked information was the Guardian newspaper, and not his own blog. So for some whistleblowers, the internet is additive, but not instrumental.


Where the internet does completely change the game is in situations when whistleblowers or activists require anonymity. The internet allows activists to share information without ever revealing their identities. It incentivizes citizens in countries where they would risk torture or death for revealing government information to disclose it. Now, they can post encrypted information without being identified by anyone as a source. The internet also lowers the barrier to entry: whistleblowers no longer need press contacts. Once information is uploaded, as Jaron Lanier notes in ‘The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks’, the internet enables rapid international dissemination, which is particularly effective given many news agencies are national.


Is whistleblowing laudable or abominable?


In an interview with Raffi Khatchadourian, Assange highlighted that his mission was to expose injustice. That is why he sees himself above all as a journalist, challenging the power of institutions. We need justice to be exposed. The question is whether whistleblowers should be assuming this role.


An argument often leveled against Snowden and Manning is that ultimately, what they did is wrong because it broke the law. If our judicial system were a perfect representation of a universal morality, this argument would hold. But it is flawed, because laws quickly become antiquated: the process for establishing them is so bureaucratic that they necessarily lag behind the emergence of new issues and technologies. If Washington has not even been able to pass a full federal budget since 1997 and a budget bill since 2009, how can we possibly expect its laws to be up to date? Moreover, great change requires a challenging of the status quo, which is often enshrined in laws. We hail law-breakers and advocates of civil disobedience like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King as heroes, so should we hail Snowden, Assange and Manning?


As Khatchadourian’s article makes clear, men like Assange are naturally marginal people who become even more removed from normal society through their physical exiles. Really, our institutions should have mainstream channels through which these sorts of challenges can be levied. In most walks of government, they do. However, when it comes to surveillance, they have failed us. In this murky world, government officials justify keeping the nature of programs secret by claiming it protects civilians.


They are right that there is a need for state secrets, but they are confounding the issue. Civilians should not have a right to know the data discovered through surveillance operations – what good can it do to reveal the whereabouts of terrorists if it compromised operations. However, we civilians should be able to decide the nature and limits of surveillance operations. We need to use democracy to draw the line, as civilians, between privacy and freedom. We need to decide if our emails and phone calls should be monitored.


Why? Democracy is about giving equality of voice to every individual. The basis for this equality is a respect for each individual’s personhood. As Lanier notes, privacy is fundamental to personhood. Privacy gives us the ability to think independently. By denying privacy, we push people down a slope to intellectual conformity, where fear of thinking wrongly hinders people from free expression.


Let’s have a referendum


A solution is to better leverage technology to engage citizens in referendums where we can express a voice on specific issues like NSA surveillance. Electronic voting makes it feasible to run referendums where previously they proved too much of an expensive logistical nightmare. Estonia, for example, has implemented electronic voting in municipal and national elections, so it should be possible for countries like the US and UK to start conducting referendums online. As long as the NSA does not hack the electronic voting systems, we should be able to democratically decide on surveillance. No need then to commit crimes, create martyrs and compromise state secrets in the process.  


One thought on “Let’s have a referendum on the NSA

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