With WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden has opened the ultimate Pandora’s Box concerning the interrelation between society and cyber technology. From an ethical standpoint, the issue questions the governmental obligations to and boundaries from its people, and the extension from “real life” to the virtual is a novel problem yet unsolved. And as students in science, perhaps we have the ability and social obligations to help solve this dilemma.
Snowden’s main claim is that liberty - and implicitly privacy - is a constitutional right of the people that the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States (US) has encroached for the sake of the nation’s security over its people. When Boundless Informant, ironically a tool of the NSA to collect surveillance data, showed that, “more communications are being intercepted in America about Americans than there are in Russia about Russians,” the doubling with Big Brother and the Gestapo is clear and viscerally disturbing. Because of this enormity of NSA’s violation of constitutional law, it becomes very difficult to empathize with the morale behind NSA’s actions. Fortunately, Del Harvey, Head of Safety at Twitter, lends insight in her Technology, Entertainment, Design (better known as TED) speech which describes how nowadays on Twitter “a one-in-a-million chance happens 500 times a day [and] those rare situations... are more like norms.” Twitter can only be a toy model of a nation, and powerful methodology then seems almost requisite to ensure the safety the public demands from the government. With anonymity and privacy both granted, activities in the web can become nearly invincible from personal accountability, which could obscure national efforts to prevent criminality in virtual space.
Consider how justified government investigations of criminal activity in the non-cyber, public domain through methods of infiltration and shadowing are accepted. That is also metadata, and by analogical reasoning there should be no reason to oppose its collection in the cyber domain. Then must the Internet also be divided into public and private domains? This is also impractical, as the virtual space is practically spatially unlimited; determining legitimacy and privacy of an activity would again require the abilities NSA has been accused for. There is therefore an inherent incompatibility in applying common sense from the pre-web era to contemporary issues. We cannot have it both ways.
However, the solution could lie in its source. The cynical may think “had there not been an Internet or surveillance technology,” but enthuse the idea “if there was a counter-surveillance medium.” Just like how a vaccine can solve the moral enigma of biological quarantine, commercial ability to detect or prevent government surveillance would render the current struggle obsolete. The suggested methods may not be conclusive answers, but as those who practice technology, we can aim to solve the social dissonances not on the grounds of ethics and morality but practicality.
Although we recognize fundamental privacy rights, the US government’s cannot be impugned in vanilla. This issue extends beyond conventional standards, and it is the burden of our generation to give an answer. Our role is then to appeal to the technology and let it not regress but progress. A right is not given but won; when also caught in the Gordian knot, we have an obligation to aid in its slicing.
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