Jay Rosen has a fantastic piece today on PressThink on what he calls the “Toobin principle“. In effect, Jeffrey Toobin and a number of media figures have criticized Edward Snowden as a criminal or, worse, a traitor even as they admit that his revelations have led to a worthwhile and more importantly, a newsworthy debate. For his part, Rosen asks whether there can “even be an informed public and consent-of-the-governed for decisions about electronic surveillance”?
I would add only the following observations. First, an informed public may well be the only real mechanism for preserving individual privacy over the long term. As we’ve seen, the NSA has gone to great lengths to explain that it was acting under appropriate legal authority, and the President himself stressed that all three branches of government approved of these programs. But that hasn’t stopped abuses — as identified in currently classified FISC opinions — or and I think this is key, stopped government entities from expanding these programs.
This also begs the bigger, looming concern of what all of this “Big Data” means. One of the big challenges surrounding Big Data today is that companies aren’t doing a very good job communicating with consumers about what they’re doing with all this data. Innovation becomes a buzzword to disguise a better way to market us things. Like “innovation,” national security has long been used as a way to legitimize many projects. However, with headlines like “The NSA is giving your phone records to the DEA. And the DEA is covering it up,” I believe it is safe to say that the government now faces the same communications dilemma as private industry.
In a recent speech at Fordham Law School, FTC Commissioner Julie Brill cautioned that Big Data will require industry to “engage in an honest discussion about its collection and use practices in order to instill consumer trust in the online and mobile marketplace.” That’s good advice — and the government ought to take it.