When the outcry over the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program broke out as a result of yet another whistle-blower (Edward Snowden) going public with classified information, I had just finished reading a book which, among other related topics, discusses the inevitability of such programs: ‘The New Digital Age’, written by Eric Schmidt, who leads Google, and Jared Cohen, a former adviser of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After extolling the increased efficiency, innovation, opportunities and better quality of life which comes with this ‘new digital age’, they also write that the “impact of the data revolution will strip citizens of much of their control over their personal information in virtual space, and that will have significant consequences in the physical world.”
They then discuss the phenomenon of whistle-blowing in the new information age, focusing in particular on Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks and the fate of Bradley Manning, the source of much of the classified material which WikiLeaks made public. While they make it clear that they do not agree with Assange’s approach, and while they clearly do not have any sympathy for Manning either, noting that “lack of judgment around sensitive materials might well get people killed”, they also write the following: “How different would the reaction have been, from Western governments in particular, if WikiLeaks had published stolen classified documents from the regimes in Venezuela, North Korea and Iran?” Schmidt and Cohen then conclude that they “expect that future Western governments would ultimately adopt a dissonant position toward digital disclosures, encouraging them abroad in adversarial countries, but prosecuting them ferociously at home.”
This is obviously happening already today. Schmidt and Cohen are optimistic as to the impact of all of this for the future of our democracies. Indeed, they write the following: “While of this digital chaos will be a nuisance to democratic societies, it will not destroy the democratic system. Institutions and policies will be left intact, if slightly battered. And once democracies determine the appropriate laws to regulate and control new trends, the result may even be an improvement, with a strengthened social contract and greater efficiency and transparency in society.”
However, they also note that “This will take time, because norms are not quick to change, and each democracy will move at its own pace.”
I must admit that I am not so sure that ‘our democracies’ will actually move at all and, if they do, that they will move in the right direction. That’s why, for the first time, I actually reacted positively to the Avaaz petition which is currently circulating. I think the ‘lack of judgment’ of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange might indeed have endangered lives. However, for some reason, I feel that this Snowden guy is a different case. For starters, he’s incredibly naive – which is another reason why I think he deserves more sympathy.