Lessons from the Summer of Snowden

The revelations of Edward Snowden have opened a breach of trust between the United States and Europe that will not be closed easily or quickly. This rift reflects the results of a decade of actions by US secret services (with the cooperation of many other governments) to conduct mass surveillance (mostly) for counter-terrorism. The technologies they use have extraordinary, supra-national reach. And the invasion of privacy required by these programs goes beyond what many citizens will comfortably tolerate now that it is out of the shadows and under the heat lamp of media attention. Trust in the integrity of online communications - and especially those delivered by American companies - is broken.

So now what? Both sides of the Atlantic have deep interests - political and economic - in repairing the damage. Yet the debate over solutions is polarized. It is divided between critics demanding immediate termination of any kind of mass surveillance and the defenders of the status quo. Neither of these choices appear to offer realistic answers.

To find realistic answers, we must begin by acknowledging a hard truth that Edward Snowden has demonstrated to Americans and Europeans like: there is no political or economic power in the world that can guarantee privacy and security in digital communications. The information systems of modern society are fundamentally insecure. We can never be completely certain that no one is watching.

The global architecture of the Internet that has beautifully facilitated access to knowledge, economic growth, and freedom of expression has at the same time weakened the liberty of individual privacy. This is a fundamental - perhaps existential - problem for modern information systems. The right to privacy is enshrined in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Focused on the sanctity of privacy in the home, it extends to correspondence and communication. And in the information age - when our whole lives are gradually migrating online - the digital application of privacy rights becomes very broad.

The network of networks that supports the Internet spans the globe and optimizes the storage and processing of Internet data for cost and efficiency -- not privacy. All of that data passes through a server and a switch somewhere -- often outside the country. In short, the globalization of communications has taken control over the right to privacy outside the power of the nation state to protect. The most powerful nation states have turned this vulnerability into a strength to combat new threats to national security, authorizing spy agencies to use surveillance technologies to build a massive communications dragnet.

This was an open secret long before Edward Snowden made it public. Very few people knew exactly how it was done. But after 9/11, most close observers of either technology markets or intelligence agencies understood the high probability that all forms of electronic surveillance that are possible, legal and affordable are likely happening. This is not exclusively an American business, but rather the practice of many nations. The muted and often contradictory reactions of many governments to the exposure of National Security Agency (NSA) programs indicates the scope of probable cooperation between allied intelligence services.

Nonetheless, the shift from an open secret to a published secret is a game changer. It is a game changer because it exposes the gap between what governments will tolerate from one another under cover of darkness and what publics will tolerate from other governments in the light of day. Those governments that were complicit with the NSA are scrambling to re-align themselves with their voters. Meanwhile, Washington is building up its arsenal of justification. Major commercial actors on both continents are preparing offensive and defensive strategies to battle in the market for a competitive advantage drawn from Snowden’s revelations. And citizens are organizing to demand sweeping change. Left unresolved, we risk that the logic of intelligence agencies -- which operate with a maxim of “trust no one” -- will begin to contaminate other areas of political, governmental and social cooperation among nations.

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Georg Mascolo