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April 16, 2014

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A failure to protect our secrets

The view through a prism can distort shapes and fragment color — perhaps heightening the beholder’s interest, but offering anything but an authentic glimpse of reality. The National Security Agency’s ironic choice of “PRISM” as the code name for a massive data-collection program, recently exposed in documents leaked by federal contractor Edward Snowden, only begins to suggest the problems with this clandestine intrusion into the lives of citizens.

Government snooping is nothing new. But PRISM, which gathers information from Facebook, Google and other tech giants, appears unusually far-reaching; the security agency was gathering detailed phone-call data from Verizon as well. These initiatives have moved the potential scale of government surveillance into a whole new realm whose limits are unknown — not only to citizens but to officials responsible for the management of intelligence collection.

Two new factors have changed the game entirely. The first is the transformation of the government’s security apparatus from a relatively small enterprise, in which figures like J. Edgar Hoover could exercise dominating influence, into a security bureaucracy vast enough to elude description, much less regulation.

As Dana Priest and William M. Arkin pointed out in their 2010 Washington Post series “Top Secret America,” more than 1,000 government organizations are paired with more than 1,000 private companies in the security labyrinth, all moving about blindly and haphazardly. Almost a million people hold top-secret security clearances, including janitors who manage the waste. Many others hold lesser security classifications. The Post subtitled its series “A hidden world, growing beyond control.” PRISM shows where that loss of control leads, but so does the fact that a low-level analyst like Snowden could lay bare one of the NSA’s deepest secrets.

Such massive bureaucracy, staffed by unnamed millions but commanded by no one, generates an impersonal dynamic of its own. No individual or group of individuals, no matter how well-intentioned, is capable of supervising it. Moral responsibility is diffuse. Such a massive institution gathers its own momentum, and neither laws nor the Constitution nor oath-bound authorities may be able to channel it or stop it.

To the fiercest of national-security hawks, this expansion of a one-track-minded bureaucracy is not intrinsically a problem. But it is, because of a second factor: unfettered technology that also resists all efforts at supervision.

The National Security Agency’s intrusions are possible because Verizon and other telecoms already possess a near universal wealth of personal data on every user, and because computers can sort through such information with astounding efficiency. Quite aside from any government policy, citizens who prefer new-world communication to a Luddite solitude are forfeiting traditional protections of privacy.

But this transformation, beyond shaking loose vast quantities of personal data, has also spread the idea that all information can and should be made transparent. That’s wrong.

The greatest secret being revealed through all of this is that secrets themselves are becoming a thing of the past. How can Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks whistle-blower Bradley Manning, each from his unimportant place deep in the bureaucracy, yet each wielding the radically unchecked power of the computer, so readily penetrate the most secure of government barriers? Their access shows what an illusion those barriers have become. The crisis here is that responsible governance, including that of a liberal democracy, requires the reasonable management of secrecy. What happens when both responsibility and management become impossible?

Turning the prism toward the individual, the crisis can seem even graver. A culture of unlimited personal exposure — whether driven by commerce, government or the pure exhibitionism evident on social-networking sites — will destroy what makes for human identity. Personhood requires privacy, but privacy is elusive, which is why we depend on one another to safeguard it.

The most basic function of government is to protect each citizen’s inner life, the sacred realm of moral discovery and self-knowledge. Indeed, the freedom that America promises to citizens is the freedom of thought and choice — of nothing less than conscience. The stakes here could not be higher.

But a government unable to protect its own secrets cannot defend the privacy of its citizens. Two sides of the same threat.

James Carroll writes a column for the Boston Globe.

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