The Transparency Challenge

NEW YORK – So now we Americans know. We know that our government is spying not just on foreigners; it is also spying on us.

Of course, most of what the government “knows” about you is “known” only in the sense that someone could get at it if they wanted to find out more about you – or if your data matched some pattern that they were investigating. So, in a sense, the data that the government collects are harmless – that is, until such information is used for a real-world purpose, such as putting people on a no-fly list or forcing into an institution someone whose online posts are “troubling.” And that is only the beginning.

Personally, I am reluctantly willing to accept the US government spying on people, especially foreigners, as long as it is constrained by rules that are public and enforced. The argument that “the other guys do it” is lame, but it is also true. The absence of a world government deters abusive power – however imperfectly, it forces governments to compete (even though they often collude). And, in an imperfect world, part of each government’s job is to protect its citizens from enemies.

Regardless of what I think, Americans live in a democracy, and overall, the public seems to support government surveillance. The question is how to keep surveillance off the slippery slope to unaccountable snooping. The most important principle is transparency: It is wrong to lie and pretend that we are not doing it.