Little Rock Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, appeared via video-conference to an applauding audience in Austin at the South by South West conference among the Technorati to argue for better protection of privacy data. He was lobbying for improved encryption programs and reportedly Google, Yahoo and others are on the job already. Snowden’s hope, reportedly, was either to get more protection or to make it more expensive for the government to spy.
Frankly, I don’t find much comfort there. When it comes to spying, as Snowden surely knows personally, money is no object. What we must have is more accountability, and that cannot be accomplished by private means.
And speaking of private means and expenses, it just can’t be a good idea to subcontract the holding of all of this so-called metadata through a 3rd party vendor, pushing accountability even farther away!
President Obama in floating this notion out, even as a potential proposal, seems to be going to the tried and true option used by all presidents for the last 60 years according to a book I read recently, Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government and the Free Market, by Janine Wedel. She is a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia which is not exactly known as a hotbed of flaming radicals, but Professor Wedel argues convincingly that when politicians, both presidents and Congressmen, have worried about public accountability, political fallout, and conflict avoidance, the preferred option has been to shift the burden – usually at a high price – to private enterprises as contractors, whipping boys, and enablers. Needless to say all of this makes scrutiny and any level of democratic accountability virtually impossible, and that seems to be the handoff strategy for this metadata hot potato.
I was heartened to read that Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School and Carrie Cordero, a former attorney with the Justice Department’s national security division also came down hard against subcontracting surveillance information to private sources in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. They sum up their argument by saying that privatization…
“…would dilute accountability, introduce potential security risks and create new pressure to continue the program regardless of its privacy implications or the national security value.”
The last point is worth noting because it is also one that Professor Wedel makes repeatedly as well. Private contractors are all about business, not policy, so it is in their interest to keep the program going, and therefore the dollars flowing, right or wrong, for as long as possible.
This is a bad idea. The President needs to force accountability, not practice a metadata shuffle step.