Sunday, June 23, 2013
My science fiction novelette "Meeting" depicts a future in which reality is constructed out of technology and artificial intelligence; countless bits of data that can be selectively re-shuffled to create new realities at will. Science fiction in general has long warned us of advancing surveillance and data manipulation technology encroaching on our basic freedoms.
Once again, reality is catching up with sci-fi. In this new age of on-line communication and increasingly wide-spread governmental data surveillance, a new kind of anti-hero has emerged: cyberhackers. Call them what you will. Heroes or Villains. Anarchists or whistle blowers. Champions of freedom, or traitors. They are an inevitable by-product of an age in which even democratic governments such as ours are amassing unimaginably vast databases that contain all our personal communications, presenting an enormous potential for oppression and invasion of personal privacy.
Edward Snowden is the most recent in a series of hackers who leak classified information to the public. Some would praise him and some would bury him. Some see him as a new kind of heroic American revolutionary who, instead of throwing tea into Boston Harbor to protest taxation without representation, breaks down the allegedly unconstitutional walls of government-classified information and adds a sorely needed degree of transparency to a dangerously opaque and increasingly secretive state of cyber-surveillance. Others see him as a strutting egoist, a product of a narcissist generation which lives in their own artificial cyber reality, believing themselves above the law and seeing real life as being boundless as the Internet.
Whether you see Snowden as hero or villain, there is no denying that he and others like him have opened a badly needed national debate on the appropriate boundaries of governmental snooping and personal privacy. Advocates of nation-wide governmental data collection on our private communications argue that such surveillance can be obtained only with the review and approval of the FISA court. And, what is that? It's a secret court for secret business. It's a shadow court; a shadow cabinet that functions as an arm of the executive branch of government and is guided not by constitutional law, but rather functions like an unelected legislative body that weighs the pros and cons of whether to surveil or not. It was set up to handle the monitoring of international communications for the purpose of national security. If the NSA or FBI comes to them with a request for surveillance on a "U.S. person" (the definition of which is becoming increasingly vague) the FISA court's answer is supposed to be "no."
But, for how much longer? In an age where we've seen our government illegally kidnap, detain and torture people in the name of national security, and even kill American citizens with predator drones... when national security can justify the Executive circumventing both Congress and Constitution in deciding what rights of privacy (or, even life itself) the rest of us have... Where then is the system of checks and balances between our three branches of government that is supposedly one of the cornerstones of our way of life?
Naturally, debates over the reach of the executive branch and the military pre-date the cyber age. We've all heard of the unconstitutional mass-internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and of the excesses of the Nixon administration, exposed by the Watergate scandal. But, cyber spying brings an old national debate into a whole new arena. And, of course, the promises and dangers of the cyber age are not limited to the U.S. We've all seen how the power of the Internet helped launch social uprising in the Middle East (the "Arab Spring") and how the Red Chinese government has tried (with only limited success) to control the Internet as an instrument of social dissent. An organized campaign of cyber-espionage and cyber-virus warfare is being launched out of Red China against the U.S. Cyber space, it seems will be the next battlefield, both for international conflict and internal social dissent.
As has always been the case when dealing with the Internet, few rules apply in establishing intellectual property. The private sector has had to deal with this, and now the government must. Rules have to be set, but they should be decided upon in open Congressional debate under the watch of an informed public. The fate of our fundamental rights should not be decided in secret, in a shadow reality over which our democratic process has no control. Our country has, after all, survived for over two centuries and prevailed against a succession of powerful enemies without having to sacrifice our fundamental rights of privacy or freedom of peaceful assembly and communication.
The Internet promises to give the human race an unprecedented degree of connectedness and freedom. Deciding how to deal with that wider realm of activity and knowledge presents a new challenge for our democracy. People like Snowden believe knowledge should be free and unfettered for all. Whatever else you may think of him, or what you think should be done to him, it is hard to resist that sentiment. After all... knowledge is power. And, human nature being what it is ... when the select few control that much knowledge ... Can freedom survive?