Because of Edward Snowden’s remarkable public service, we know that the National Security Agency, with the cooperation of some large firms, has amassed an unprecedented database of personal information. The ostensible goal in collecting that information is to protect national security. The effect, according to Reed Hundt, is to undermine democracy.
Hundt—chair of the Federal Communications Commission under President Clinton and early champion of the Internet—argues that the law and traditional checks on political power have not kept pace with the digital realm. Even calls for debate within government about how best to prevent misuses of data have come up against concerns about national security.
How should we respond? Hundt proposes a new compact that encourages citizens to use encryption to protect their information and offers government support for technologies and legislation that enable self-protection. Moreover, the government would have to rely on tried-and-true practices of the criminal justice system, not secret backdoors, to police encrypted digital space.
Some respondents are skeptical about Hundt’s expectations for constructive public policy, given the government’s past behavior and its current role in deploying technologies that weaken Internet security. Others worry that Hundt downplays the dangers associated with corporate data collection. Evgeny Morozov imagines a brave new world in which citizens might “buy” goods by selling their personal data to corporate bidders.
The forum is part of our collaboration with Stanford University’s McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. We are grateful to the Center for their partnership and support. You can browse past collaborations with the Center at bostonreview.net. Over the coming year, the Center’s theme will be the ethics of the future—keep an eye on our Web site for more on this theme.
Elsewhere in this issue, we return to the theme of democratic practice: Anthony Fowler finds that get-out-the-vote efforts largely target those already likely to vote and do little to get others to the polls, consolidating their underrepresentation in American politics. Vesla Weaver’s work helps explain why. In “Outside the Walls,” she shows how heavily policed minority communities—where the criminal justice system is the principal agency of government—experience a pervasive fear of contact with government, including contact through the simple act of voting.
Finally we are pleased to publish the winners of the 92nd Street Y’s “Discovery” poetry contest (page 66). Congratulations to Justin Boening, Nava EtShalom, Meghan Maguire Dahn, and Jeremy Schmidt.