For many in the world of political journalism, 2013 was characterised by the Edward Snowden scandal, which first broke last June and is still rumbling on. Around that time, when we were first coming to understand the extent to which the American security apparatus had been spying on everyone’s communications, I wrote in Prospect arguing that the scandal showed society had placed an over-emphasis on security to the detriment of privacy, and that this needed to change.
In the subsequent months, this was indeed the consensus that emerged as more revelations abounded—perhaps the most politically damaging for the Oabama administration being the NSA’s bugging of foreign leaders, including such allies as Germany’s Angela Merkel. Many Germans, especially those from the former East Germany, found the American’s activities to be uneasily close to those of the Stasi (indeed, Merkel herself made the comparison). Statements of disapproval from government spokespersons accompanied outraged headlines around the world, especially in Latin America, where the furore set back President Obama’s attempts to forge better relations with the region. Brazil’s President has been belligerent in her opposition to the spying.
This global voicing of discontent has done much to show that people put a significant value on their privacy. And that information on who they call and email, and what they post on social media belongs only to them and those they choose to share it with. The question now is whether enough people will act to claw some of their privacy back through sustained media campaigns, applying pressure to politicians and, perhaps, through demonstrations (although so far these have been insignificant).
Late last year, a federal judge ruled that the collection of this “communication meta-data” infringed Americans’ right to be free from arbitrary searches, as enshrined in the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. In his damning statement, Judge Leon likened his government’s activities to those of the government of Oceania in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Despite the Obama administration’s unsurprising decision to appeal against this verdict and its recent announcement that a not-so-secret secret court has renewed the NSA’s license to mine meta-data, it will be difficult for it to ignore the fact that some aspects of its surveillance programme have been deemed unconstitutional.
To salvage the situation, Obama should give in to the pressure of public opinion, which is moving against the NSA (in December, The Guardian reported that 47 per cent of Americans thought the security…