Moyers and Lessig talk about what to do
With all the sturm und drang of the past couple of weeks over the NSA revelations, we haven't heard a lot about the possible solutions. Greg Sargent had a well circulated column about possible fixes and David Atkins wrote about it here as well. My personal view is that biggest threat is the gargantuan size and scope of our surveillance bureaucracy and that job one is to scale it back --- and not just the NSA, but across our whole security apparatus. The mere existence of such a system is offensive to a free society in my opinion.
This conversation between Bill Moyers and Lawrence Lessig is one of the most sophisticated discussions I've seen about the problems we face with the technology and our ability to contain it and use it to protect the citizens from threats outside the government and within it:
Whatever your take on the recent revelations about government spying on our phone calls and Internet activity, there’s no denying that Big Brother is bigger and less brotherly than we thought. What’s the resulting cost to our privacy — and more so, our democracy? Lawrence Lessig, professor of law and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and founder of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, discusses the implications of our government’s actions, Edward Snowden’s role in leaking the information, and steps we must take to better protect our privacy.
Here's just one excerpt I wanted to highlight:
“Snowden describes agents having the authority to pick and choose who they’re going to be following on the basis of their hunch about what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. This is the worst of both worlds. We have a technology now that gives them access to everything, but a culture if again it’s true that encourages them to be as wide ranging as they can,” Lessig tells Bill. “The question is — are there protections or controls or counter technologies to make sure that when the government gets access to this information they can’t misuse it in all the ways that, you know, anybody who remembers Nixon believes and fears governments might use?”
Few are as knowledgeable about the impact of the Internet on our public and private lives as Lessig, who argues that government needs to protect American rights with the same determination and technological sophistication it uses to invade our privacy and root out terrorists.
“If we don’t have technical measures in place to protect against misuse, this is just a trove of potential misuse…We’ve got to think about the technology as a protector of liberty too. And the government should be implementing technologies to protect our liberties,” Lessig says. “Because if they don’t, we don’t figure out how to build that protection into the technology, it won’t be there.”
“We should recognize in a world of terrorism the government’s going to be out there trying to protect us. But let’s make sure that they’re using tools or technology that also protects the privacy side of what they should be protecting.”
BILL MOYERS: You sounded a warning, back in 1998 when you testified before, 15 years ago, when you testified before the House Judiciary Committee. You begin by describing how the Russian people were technologically monitored by their government. Here's what you said.
LAWRENCE LESSIG testifying:
The Russian people learned to live with this invasion. They learned to put up with the insecurities that technology brought. If they had something private to say, they would go for a walk in a public park. If they didn't want a call traced, they would make it from a public phone. They learned to live with this intrusion by adjusting their life to it. They found privacy in public spaces, since private spaces had been invaded by a technology.
And who could blame them? They lived in a totalitarian regime. The State was unchallengeable.
The last 20 years have seen an extraordinary explosion in technologies for invading people's privacy and for a market that feeds on the product of these technologies.
We are told that our E-mail can be collected and searched by our company or university, and so op-eds advise us not to put private matters into E-mail. Our credit card records become the source for direct marketers, and rather than object, we simply buy with more cash. We have responded to this increasing invasion as the Soviets responded to theirs.
Bovine, we have accepted the reduction in private space. Passive, we have adjusted our life to these new intrusions. Accepting, we have been told that this is the way we have to live in this newly digitized age. Now I find this quite bizarre. For while this increasing Sovietization of our personal and private life occurs, we live in no Soviet State. While passivity dominates, there is no reason we couldn't do things differently. We accept these invasions and these restrictions on our freedom, though there is no Soviet army to enforce them on us.
That was 15 years ago. And here we are. I don't know what the difference is between people who simply accept this way of living and those who don't, but we're seeing that tension being played out in the current debate over government secrecy and surveillance. If the polls are to be believed, a large majority are fine with these sorts of activities as long as they personally trust the party in charge of the government that's doing it.
We accept them, these reductions in the space of our privacy, even though we are the architects of the technologies that give effect to this reduction in privacy. And worse than accept them, sometimes we are told we have no choice but to accept them.
Technologies of monitoring and searching erode our privacy, and yet some will argue that the Constitution restricts Congress' power to respond. Technologies make it possible from a half-a-mile away to peer into one's home and watch what goes on there, or eavesdroppers to listen to the conversations in our bedroom, but we are told that the free speech clause of the First Amendment bars Congress from doing anything in response.
Congress, our Constitution is no Politburo. The free speech clause does not render us hostage to the invasions of new technologies. It does not disable you, as representatives of the people, from responding to these changes through laws that aim to re-create the privacy that technology has removed. Indeed, other values, themselves as essential to our democracy as free speech, should push you to take steps to protect the privacy and dignity that changing technologies may take away.
Lessig has some thoughts about what we can do and it's well worth watching if you have time. It's going to take a different consciousness among the American people or an outbreak of conscience and courage among our leaders. I honestly don't know where that leaves us.