The real lesson of the Snowden leaks is not the threat to privacy. It is the NSA’s losing battle against the new agents of openness
American and British spies undermined the secrecy and security of everyone using the internet with their efforts to foil encryption. Then, Edward Snowden foiled them by revealing what is perhaps – though we may never know – their greatest secret.
When I worried on Twitter that we could not trust encryption now, technologist Lauren Weinstein responded with assurances that it would be difficult to hide “backdoors” in commonly used PGP encryption – because it is open-source.
Openness is the more powerful weapon. Openness is the principle that guides, for example, Guardian journalism. Openness is all that can restore trust in government and technology companies. And openness – in standards, governance, and ethics – must be the basis of technologists’ efforts to take back the the net.
Secrecy is under dire threat but don’t confuse that with privacy. “All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret,” Gabriel García Márquez tells his biographer. “Secrecy is what is known, but not to everyone. Privacy is what allows us to keep what we know to ourselves,” Jill Lepore explains in the New Yorker. “Privacy is consensual where secrecy is not,” write Carol Warren and Barbara Laslett in the Journal of Social Issues.
Think of it this way: privacy is what we keep to ourselves; secrecy is what is kept from us. Privacy is a right claimed by citizens. Secrecy is a privilege claimed by government.
It’s often said that the internet is a threat to privacy, but on the whole, I argue it is not much more of a threat than a gossipy friend or a nosy neighbor, a slip of the tongue or of the email “send” button. Privacy is certainly put at risk when we can no longer trust that our communication, even encrypted, are safe from government’s spying eyes. But privacy has many protectors.
And we all have one sure vault for privacy: our own thoughts. Even if the government were capable of mind-reading, ProPublica argues in an essay explaining its reason to join the Snowden story, the fact of it “would have to be known”.
The agglomeration of data that makes us fear for our privacy is also what makes it possible for one doubting soul – one Manning or Snowden – to learn secrets. The speed of data that makes us fret over the the devaluation of facts is also what makes it possible for journalists’ facts to spread before government can stop them. The essence of the Snowden story, then, isn’t government’s threat to privacy, so much as it is government’s loss of secrecy.
Oh, it will take a great deal for government to learn that lesson. Its first response is to try to match a loss of secrecy with greater secrecy, with a war on the agents of openness: whistleblowers and journalists and news organizations. President Obama had the opportunity to meet Snowden’s revelations – redacted responsibly by the Guardian – with embarrassment, apology, and a vow to make good on his promise of transparency. He failed.
But the agents of openness will continue to wage their war on secrecy.
In a powerful charge to fellow engineers, security expert Bruce Schneier urged them to fix the net that “some of us have helped to subvert.” Individuals must make a moral choice, whether they will side with secrecy or openness.
So must their companies. Google and Microsoft are suing government to be released from their secret restrictions – but there is still more they can say. I would like Google to explain what British agents could mean when they talk of “new access opportunities being developed” at the company. Google’s response – “we have no evidence of any such thing ever occurring” – would be more reassuring if it were more specific.
This latest story demonstrates that the Guardian, now in partnership with the New York Times and ProPublica, as well as publications in Germany and Brazil that have pursued their own surveillance stories, will continue to report openly in spite of government acts of intimidation.
I am disappointed that more news organizations, especially in London, are not helping support the work of openness by adding reporting of their own and editorializing against government overreach. I am also saddened that my American colleagues in news industry organizations, as well as journalism education groups, are not protesting loudly.
But even without them, what this story teaches is that it takes only one technologist, one reporter, one news organization to defeat secrecy. At length, openness will out.