On March 10, Edward Snowden was interviewed via videoconference at the annual conference of SXSW Interactive: “Conversation with Edward Snowden” It is an absolutely brilliant discussion of the issues first raised by Snowden last year with emphasis on protecting our privacy. I had not viewed it yet when I posted my last blog on the slippery slop of government expansion, but it provides another powerful set of examples. I strongly urge anyone to view it who is interested in and concerned about how to strengthen our security against criminals and enemies without eroding the checks and limits on the scope and power of our government that is one of the foundations of our successful democracy built into our constitution.
Snowden is surprisingly articulate. He understands economics almost as well as cryptology. I will repeat here just two of the many brilliant points he made and urge you to watch it all.
No one in the discussion of surveillance and national security raised by Snowden wishes to impede the ability of the NSA or the government to gather information on targeted individuals under court orders with proper oversight. Sounding like an economist (and of course we all love economists) Snowden notes that the billions of dollars that have been wasted on mass (as opposed to targeted) data collection and analysis (it has produced virtually no useful information) has taken valuable resources away from improving the collection and analysis of targeted information. Thus, for example, the underwear bomber and the Boston marathon bombers probably could have been stopped if our government had used its intelligence resources more wisely. In short, mass surveillance programs have reduced our security in many ways.
When asked why the NSA and other government security agencies persist in hanging on to worthless and wasteful (and potentially dangerous) programs, Snowden presents a proper public choice answer that is very similar to the special interest defense of wasteful and harmful tax loop holes I criticized a few days ago. Individuals and companies benefit from the huge amounts spent on these programs. They acquire a self-interest in their preservation. In addition, bureaucrats are naturally self-protective and slow-moving. You really should listen to Snowden’s own words.
As I have said a number of times previously, the disclosures of confidential government documents and internal discussions by Chelsea (AKA Bradley) Manning are harmful to the effective functioning of government. I am glad that she is in jail, though a hospital would probably be more appropriate. Snowden, on the other hand is a full-blown hero and patriot. It took me a while to fully embrace this view, but it is clear now that our personal and national security have already improved and should improve further in the future because of him (and others working in the same direction). I am very grateful for the huge personal sacrifice he has made for me and for our country. I hope that our government will find a way to welcome him back home soon.