Transparency in the Digital Surveillance Era

As a former member of the US Military Intelligence community, it feels counter-intuitive to be transparent with regards to digital surveillance. The very nature of surveillance, in the context of intelligence gathering, encourages stealth in the achievement of its goal thereby placing it on the opposite end of the spectrum from transparency. In other words, more information is gathered than could be if the subject or subjects knew they were being surveilled. With that information or raw data, threat levels can be more accurately assessed, patterns documented, plans formulated, tasks assigned, disasters averted, etc, etc.

The practice is definitely not without its merits but, thanks to insights from individuals like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, it is clear that age-old traditions and practices are unlikely to survive intact as more and more members of the global population become consciously aware of the evolving world around them, specifically the watchful eyes that gaze upon their daily lives.

It’s a double-edged sword descending like a pendulum over the tight rope between preservation of national security and individual privacy. Sacrifice on one side, invariably and simultaneously threatens the other. How then can they best co-exist? Can a delicate balance truly be struck between these two pillars of our society?

Some leaders of the modern Technology Age would have us believe so. Companies such as Microsoft, Google & Verizon have recently taken steps toward transparency by publicly proclaiming their commitment to consumer privacy. Moving forward, they intend to notify their users of NSA requests for their data (e.g., email, phone, geolocation, etc). While this may sound like just what the doctor ordered, the reality is that you are highly unlikely to see any specifics on what was requested about you individually. The reports released by these companies will most likely just contain anonymous aggregate data for all users regarding the frequency, date and type of data requested, a/k/a “statistics”. At best, this information would only give you insight into the What and When while leaving the Who and Why to your imagination.

Our innate desire to receive full disclosure or transparency is an admirable human quality; however, the likelihood that world governments will ever adopt fully transparent policies is doubtful. The jobs that the members of the intelligence community (NSA, CIA, etc) perform are just as important and crucial as those of doctor, fireman, farmer, grocer, mechanic, plumber or banker. They are jobs that are a thread in the fabric of our society. And, just like any other job there is as much potential for misconduct as there is for outstanding service. With that in mind, I propose that we be no less weary of the intelligence community than we are of any other segment of the workforce in our pursuit of justice, liberty and freedom. As legendary vocalist Bobby McFerrin would say “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and take solace in the fact that what’s done in the dark eventually comes to light.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *