18 June 2015

My privacy and your transparency


Maybe you saw several news sources reporting last week that Russian and Chinese intelligence services had decrypted some of Edward Snowden's purloined files and, as a result, British intelligence was forced to move some of its agents from hostile fields. Anonymous "senior officials in Downing Street, the Home Office and the security services" were cited in these reports, which added that Snowden had "blood on his hands."

At first I was not at all happy, since Snowden had explicitly said that the files he was making available would put nobody in danger. Then, after a few moments of reflection, I thought, "Do I trust these anonymous people who perhaps have some motivation other than pure virtue for throwing mud at Snowden?"

Today I came across Glenn Greenwald's response to these recent allegations--"journalism at its worst." Clearly, Greenwald has motivations of his own -- he has a central role in the Snowden epic -- but his article includes a detailed inventory of falsehoods and innuendos that somehow never made it into those same news channels that told us about the urgent transfers of agents and the blood on Snowden's hands -- at least not with the same level of visibility. And that vague discomfort that I felt reading the original story is crisply defined in his article. You and I are intended to assume the following: If some anonymous government officials said it, and journalists repeat it while hiding their informants, I guess it must be true.

Snowden, Greenwald, and their allies have been campaigning to expose our governments' abuse of power and avoidance of accountability in spying on citizens' telephone and Internet communications. In the U.S., their allies include politicians as varied as Senators Rand Paul (R) and Jeff Merkley (D). Recently, their legislative efforts as well as developments on the legal front have resulted in some progress in the fight against universal surveillance. However, at the risk of sounding totally inconsistent, I don't think this is a simple human-rights vs big-government controversy.

We're actually dealing with two separable but related controversies:
  • violating citizens' privacy (which no government likes to admit doing -- there's usually some veneer of legality in the form of warrants, tribunals, etc., to excuse exceptions), and 
  • official secrecy (which hides government operations that we're not supposed to know about -- including conspiracies to violate our privacy). 
As a rule, I'm in favor of government secrecy when that secrecy actually protects the privacy of citizens. I don't want tax or Social Security files, government personnel records, or unproven allegations in criminal investigations to be made public ... and you can think of lots of other examples of reasonable secrecy. But however reasonable that secrecy might be, there is simply no way to guarantee it 100%, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, as I argued in my blog post, "Leaks," on the original Wikileaks scandal. To tell the truth, the less I trust the government, the more I'm going to hope for breaches of secrecy.

Beyond those reasonable exceptions, I'm all for total transparency in government. What about the transparency of our lives as private citizens? If we're not violating a law and thereby giving cause for a warrant to be issued to spy on us, shouldn't we have a near-absolute right to expect inviolability for private behavior and private communication? I'm not sure.

For example: because of my many overseas contacts and frequent conversations with them, I could imagine accidentally appear on a list somewhere that I would not have chosen to appear on, but turns out to be linked to a criminal or terrorist. Why should I object to a momentary intrusion to verify my harmlessness? Wouldn't any filter that absolutely prevented such a happenstance also be weaker than necessary?

I've also been part of protest movements that clashed dramatically with government policies. To my knowledge, every such affiliation I've ever had has held a firmly nonviolent position, and for most of my life they've also been explicitly Christian, but some of them have included civil disobedience. Wouldn't it be prudent for government to take a quick look at these affiliations and see whether or not they are indeed nonviolent? In fact, by doing so, wouldn't the government's agents learn something about the ethics of nonviolence that they might not learn in other areas of their job?

Speaking of Christianity, what areas of our lives are we disciples, as disciples, entitled to conceal from others? (This isn't a rhetorical question; my list would start with conversations with pastors and counselors about personal dilemmas and crises.) Is there any effective evangelism that doesn't involve showing the disbelieving world what it looks like to have Jesus at the center of our lives, rather than the idols prescribed by the world, or for that matter, our addictions? What are the implications for our privacy? If we preach against fear-based government "national security" propaganda, how do we show what living fearlessly means to us?

Daniel Webster asserted, and Justice Marshall agreed, that the power to tax is the power to destroy. The power to violate privacy is similarly coercive, which brings us back to the issue of trust. I want to live a transparent life, and I (usually) don't mind being observed to be doing so. But an uninvited observation that is ultimately for the purpose of compelling my obedience, or tracking my relationships with others, or enforcing political uniformity, is completely unacceptable. Therefore I circle back to governmental secrecy. If those in power want to compromise our privacy in any way, however urgent the need might be, then they should expect our untiring efforts to require trustworthiness and transparency in them. Hopefully that won't require leaks....

Part two, the case of Facebook.

See also "Was it something I said?", part one, part two.

Our options in Iraq and the role of unreflective blind faith: Washington in Wonderland.

Micah Bales: Why Pope Francis' encyclical matters. And from the Telegraph: Why this pope could make the world greener.

Margaret Benefiel: Sustaining ministry through soulful entrepreneurship.
I learned that it wasn't a sin to reach out to people who might be a good fit for my programs; in fact, it was part of the ministry of serving them. And I learned that it wasn't a sin to desire a living wage.
Does education still serve the cause of basic social fairness? Andrew Delbanco is worried....

Elisabeth Elliot, 1926-2015: Obituary and many links.

Blues from Madrid:

CAFÉ NEGRO. El tren de la Habana from Café Negro on Vimeo.

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