Digital Whistle-Blowing: Good or Bad?

An argument can be made that no matter how secure one thinks their data may be, it is always subject to being hacked. There are always hackers capable of accessing, stealing, or simply secretly duplicating data.  This applies to personal data on a computer beginner’s machine, and goes as high up as the National Security Agency.  Yes, the NSA.

But is all hacking, all capturing of secret or private, protected data, a bad thing?  Or is it civil disobedience, whistle blowing, public enlightenment?  When Wells Fargo’s bogus charges on their customers was discovered, this came from private bank information.  When the housing crisis became public, much of this was through the baring of secret files, showing data that the financial institutions knew well and good that the loans were in crisis mode; the mortgage resell game was a house of cards.

An event that has people on diametrically opposed on the question of right versus wrong, good versus bad, took place in May of 2013. When Edward Snowden released a trove of classified NSA data to the public, he became a hero to some, an enemy or pariah to others.

How did he do this?  He copied and saved data that was stored on secure servers; data that was no doubt deeply encrypted and protected any number of ways.  Snowden had enough know-how and digital savvy to defeat protections and gain copy and save access.  He was then able to either copy and/or transit the data elsewhere so he could release it, as the phrase goes, “into the wild.”

He did this after relocating temporarily to Hong Kong, where extradition laws would not apply and he would enjoy some degree of safety.  That lasted but a brief moment.  On June 21st of 2013 the US Justice Department pressed charges against Snowden; two counts of Espionage and one of theft of government property.  Two days later he fled to Russia, which offered him safe harbor.

Among the revelations in the Snowden documents were evidence and documentation of massive spying of all kinds: wiretaps of landlines and cellphones, deep sub rosa computer entry (aka, hacking) for data review and analysis.  This actually violated constitutional rights.

The United States Constitution is the seminal document of law, upon which the Supreme Court interprets and rules upon.  The 4th Amendment to the Constitution states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Modern day digital assets and communications fall under these protections.  In 1967 the Supreme Court found in Katz vs The United States that, in regard to a citizen’s “reasonable expectation of privacy” they are entitled to under the United States Constitution, the Federal Government must possess a warrant for wiretapping practices.

In addition to these Supreme Court rulings, the US Congress took it further with modifications done to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. In general, only wiretaps granted by court were legally viable. This constituted a specific list of offenses as denoted by the Supreme Court. A duration of up to 30 days would be the maximum length of a wiretap. The wiretap’s topic of interest also needed to be divulged within the 90 day time period.

 

By the end of the 1900s, Congress broadened the law’s reach in terms of wiretapping to that of electronic mail. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act was instituted, also known as the Wiretap Act. This made it unlawful for the reading of an individual’s private email. A great deal of unrest resulted from this Act, as it did not prevent the Government from obtaining data from online service providers.

 

Snowden, as a whistle blower, made it clear that the NSA was in violation of these protected privacy laws, freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution and reinforced by Supreme Court rulings.  And yet he also gave up Intelligence and Security secrets. 

 

Thus the question arises, was he a hero or a villain?  Was this civil disobedience, bringing to the public eye the snooping of the government on its people?  Or was it a massive and illegal invasion of the privacy of individuals, an end-run around the law posing under the guise of national security?  After all, how could so many private conversations really have to do with National Security?

 

These are difficult questions.  Some see Snowden as guilty of espionage; others as a hero to be celebrated, a whistleblower who exposed wrongdoing.  Yet no arguments are made against those who blew the whistle on Enron or Wells Fargo or the financial institutions that caused the housing crisis.  All of these were based on digital data coming to light, exposing illegal events.  Bad versus good in these cases can be a conundrum: is getting the data and making it public, for the public good, even by questionable means, good or bad?

 

This may be a more difficult issue than how one might protect their data from hackers gaining access to their devices.

 

  1. Major source for 4 Amendment legal information: http://constitution.laws.com/the-supreme-court/wiretapping

 

Dean Landsman is a NYC-based Digital Strategist who writes a monthly column for PR for People “The Connector.”

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