The most important points in any position are the assumptions it is based on. You can see which side Reed Hundt is on when he studiously maintains neutrality with respect to Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing. That is a clear rejection of the campaign against massive surveillance that Snowden’s heroism made possible. Hundt asks, “Who watches the watchmen?” but he shrinks from the undeniable answer: whistleblowers do that job.
Another strange premise is about democracy. Democracy does not mean that “individuals are sovereign,” though human rights do demand such sovereignty, up to a point. Democracy means that the people as a whole—not the noble, or the rich, or the male, or the white—control the state and its actions. We can’t control actions hidden from us, so democracy depends on whistleblowers. But the state goes to great lengths, including prosecution, to punish whistleblowers. To make democracy effective, we must make whistleblowing so safe that whistleblowers do not need the courage and careful planning of a Snowden.
It is not sufficient to store the records about our communication outside the state’s direct control. The United States now finds whistleblowers by looking at journalists’ phone records, email contacts, and so on to find out who has talked with them. Labeling whistleblowing a crime provides the legal grounds to search these records, no matter where they are kept.
We need collective action, not individual self-protection.
For democracy’s sake, we must make sure those records are nowhere to be found. We must put an end to the accumulation of dossiers about people in general—that is, about people who are not visibly committing crimes and not subject to specific court-ordered surveillance. We must make sure that the state does not know in general where we go and whom we communicate with. (See the GNU Web site for more on this point, and technical recommendations for many systems.)
Instead of this full solution, Hundt proposes individual self-protection: use of privacy-enhancing technologies. Programs such as Tor, the GNU Privacy Guard, and GNUnet are useful, but they address only part of the problem. They can’t protect you from being tracked by face recognition or portable tracking devices (cell phones) as you move around, from the phone company’s records of who you called and who called you, or from credit card companies taking note of what you buy. Fixing this problem requires collective action.
But Hundt’s most vicious assumption is that “almost everyone” would choose a total surveillance state as a way to “protect our families from harm.” We used to think it proper to take risks to defend our freedom, but he dismisses that idea. What a sad end for the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The NSA’s claim that its massive surveillance really protects us appears to be a lie, but even if it were true, the danger of terrorism in the United States is too small to justify sacrificing anything important. To the extent that it exists, its main cause is our own government’s crimes, which inspire hatred. To prevent this, we need to make our democracy function, not sacrifice the rights it is based on.
These rights matter elsewhere, too. Every human being, U.S. citizen or otherwise, deserves human rights. It is not enough even for the United States to fully and honestly respect the rights of its own citizens. The government must not spy indiscriminately or without valid justification on people anywhere in the world.