Freedom in the Digital Age
Welcome back everyone, hope that you all had a great 4th of July weekend.
You hear the word “freedom” a lot during Independence Day. Sometimes it is used jokingly (Time to grill up some meat – for freedom!), but most would agree that objectively we enjoy a lot of freedom in this country. I’m sure we can all think of examples, one poignant reminder for me came when I watched Jon Stewart being interviewed on his Egyptian counterpart Bassem Youssef’s show. During the segment Youssef asked Stewart if being a satirist ever got him into trouble – “I tell ya not nearly the type of trouble it gets you into,” Stewart replied. Satire here is settled law, Stewart observes, while in Egypt the government has labeled Youssef as propagating and promoting obscenity, inciting violence, and promoting civil war, and indeed just last month Youssef took his program off the air rather than face censorship and threats on his life.
At the same time, however, this past year has been a wake up call in terms of how our growing reliance on technology – smart phones, cloud computing, social media, etc – has allowed for unprecedented levels of surveillance, changing our perception of freedom in this country.
The watershed moment of course came with the breaking of the Edward Snowden story in June of 2013. We now know that the National Security Agency in collaboration with other spy organizations around the world has been collecting meta data on the cell phone calls of people worldwide, including those of Americans, setting up backdoors into the networks of major technology companies to access the data they hold on their millions of users, intercepting and installing trackers on internet routers, with more revelations expected to come.
Now that it’s clear our increasing use of technology has dramatically altered the national security landscape, one might wonder how else technology has been used to protect Americans and what consequences this has on our freedom.
Much as the the Internet has enabled new crowdsourcing models (such as crowdfunding with Kickstarter), the crowd has at times been engaged in the process of bringing about justice. This past April, a San Francisco woman had her laptop and smartphone stolen while at a cafe. The cafe circulated the security video online that showed a woman dressed in a striped yellow shirt clearly taking the devices when their owner got up to use the restroom. Soon afterward the thief was spotted by someone who had seen the video. The police were notified and the suspect was arrested.
In a less successful case, immediately after the Boston Marathon bombings the social media website Reddit was used for people to contribute information they thought would help determine the perpetrators of the attack. However, postings on Reddit forums resulted in more false leads than legitimate clues. The New York Post even published on its front cover a picture of two men, Salaheddin Barhoum and Yassine Zaimi, who it turned out had nothing to do with the bombings. Barhoum and Zaimi filed a lawsuit against the Post for damages against their privacy and for causing emotional distress.
Clearly technology has dramatically altered the security landscape, and at the same time our sense of personal freedom. Now that we have become more aware, the question becomes what safeguards will be put in place. The Supreme Court recently ruled that authorities have to obtain a warrant before searching a person’s smartphone, a laudable decision given that so much of our lives are contained in those devices. Of main concern is what changes will be made to the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court, the court that gave the NSA broad leeway to conduct its operations. Americans should both continue to engage in a dialogue on what freedom looks like in the 21st century, as well as put pressure on their elected representatives to be transparent about the workings of our security apparatus. Whatever it is about our freedom that you celebrate, now is the time to get involved in the discussion of how to balance liberty and security given that today’s technology could tip the balance towards one or the other like never before.