Edward Snowden has released thousands of secret National Security Agency (NSA) documents to the journalist Glenn Greenwald, for him to evaluate and selectively publish, in order to start a debate about the government’s excessive invasion of privacy. The debate has indeed begun, and numerous examples exist in print and on the Internet. Here is a good example--Greenwald debating Alan Dershowitz.
Much of the debate, as in the above example, is about deciding on the proper level of electronic surveillance, striking a balance between the needs of citizens for privacy and the government’s need to prevent terrorist attacks. While important, this discussion is of a static view of the problem. I would like to call attention to a dynamic aspect--the way government surveillance and security leaks have both been increasing. To many people’s surprise, Barack Obama has been cracking down on leakers even more than George H. W. Bush, while during the crackdown the size of the leaks has increased--from Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning to Edward Snowden.
What are we to make of this phenomenon? To prevent leaks, the government increases its security measures, threats, and punishments, but surprisingly, the amount of leaked material increases.
Systems theorists are familiar with a phenomenon, present in many conflict situations, known as a symmetrical escalation, in which each party’s move is one-upped by the other’s response. Marital therapists are familiar with the way trivial disagreements can escalate to the verge of divorce; and such escalations are often a comedic theme, as in the song from Annie Get Your Gun “Anything you can do I can do better.”
We saw a symmetrical escalation in the arms race during the Cold War, and a similar escalation during the War on Drugs has led to the formation of drug cartels, the destabilization of Colombia, Mexico, and other friendly countries, and the financing of enemies such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
It seems to me that the crackdown on security leaks is leading to a symmetrical escalation between the government and the leakers. Because of the massive size of our counterterrorism efforts, and the vast number of people involved, many abuses are bound to occur. (Even if the percentage of abuses is small, a small percent of a very large number is still substantial.) The need for secrecy prevents adequate external oversight, self-policing, and corrective measures. These uncorrected deficiencies in turn lead to disillusionment and outrage among some people in the system (again, a small percentage of a large number is still substantial), leading to leaks aimed at provoking change. Crackdowns on whistleblowers, lead to further disillusionment and outrage, and thus to further leaks.
If I am right about this symmetrical escalation, then crackdowns alone, without major policy and institutional change, will prove to be counterproductive.
Wikimedia image of Edward Snowden
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