Saturday, November 2, 2013

Snowden-Induced Cognitive Dissonance

I believe both of the following statements:
  1. Edward Snowden is a straight-up traitor, who has done irreparable harm to the national security of the US, and has damaged its diplomatic standing in the world.
  2. Edward Snowden has done the American people a huge service by revealing to them the extent of the modern surveillance state, and by provoking a long-overdue discussion about the tradeoffs we need to make as we balance freedom and security.
Believing both statements makes my head hurt.  Mr. Snowden asking for the US to stop treating him like a traitor makes my head hurt even more, because the derisive laughter it provokes sends little pressure waves through my skull, exacerbating the pain.

I don't buy that Snowden dumped all of the NSA's secrets out of any civic-spirited impulse for one second.  Snowden is a narcissistic sociopath who wanted to be famous.  If anything else were the case, he would have leaked a minimum amount of information anonymously.  He also would have found more benign host countries than China and Russia.

Still, we have to come to grips with the intersection of Big Data and national security.  Evgeny Morozov had an excellent essay on this topic a couple of weeks ago, where he pointed out that the data collection is only a small part of the problem.  The bigger problem is that the data can be processed in ways that can't be understood, either by the watchers or the watched:
Thanks to smartphones or Google Glass, we can now be pinged whenever we are about to do something stupid, unhealthy, or unsound. We wouldn’t necessarily need to know why the action would be wrong: the system’s algorithms do the moral calculus on their own. Citizens take on the role of information machines that feed the techno-bureaucratic complex with our data. And why wouldn’t we, if we are promised slimmer waistlines, cleaner air, or longer (and safer) lives in return?

This logic of preĆ«mption is not different from that of the NSA in its fight against terror: let’s prevent problems rather than deal with their consequences. Even if we tie the hands of the NSA—by some combination of better oversight, stricter rules on data access, or stronger and friendlier encryption technologies—the data hunger of other state institutions would remain. They will justify it. On issues like obesity or climate change—where the policy makers are quick to add that we are facing a ticking-bomb scenario—they will say a little deficit of democracy can go a long way.

Here’s what that deficit would look like: the new digital infrastructure, thriving as it does on real-time data contributed by citizens, allows the technocrats to take politics, with all its noise, friction, and discontent, out of the political process. It replaces the messy stuff of coalition-building, bargaining, and deliberation with the cleanliness and efficiency of data-powered administration.

This phenomenon has a meme-friendly name: “algorithmic regulation,” as Silicon Valley publisher Tim O’Reilly calls it. In essence, information-rich democracies have reached a point where they want to try to solve public problems without having to explain or justify themselves to citizens. Instead, they can simply appeal to our own self-interest—and they know enough about us to engineer a perfect, highly personalized, irresistible nudge.
Thanks to Snowden, we can have discussions like this.  And perhaps because of this, maybe the US should be merciful and ignore the man.  But if he ever comes in easy range of US law enforcement, he must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Now where's that Advil?

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