The revelations of the Guardian interviews of Edward Snowden were quite interesting. According to the news interviews Snowden was a contract employee in Hawaii for Booz, Allen - which once was one of the original consulting firms and is now fundamentally an enterprise whose prime clients are the government. (A bit like a Government Sponsored Enterprise)
Snowden argued that the system that he outed allows government to surveil anyone at any time. He describes the potential for this program as "turnkey tyranny." He argues that with the rapid decline in the cost of storage that it has become simple to collect and store massive amounts of data from all sorts of electronic sources and they do it because that policy represents "easiest, most efficient, and most valuable" to do the job. But we should be questioning whether that is job we should be doing.
There are a couple of interesting side notes. First, according to the Washington Post Snowden is not very well educated, he holds a GED but I suspect his technical skills are well developed. Second, he enlisted in the Army reserves but was then denied the opportunity to enlist in the Special Forces. He left the Army after breaking both legs. What interested me in listening to and reading interviews he has given is that he is quite articulate. His move was not an impulsive one.
There has been a lot of commentary about whether the Obama administration expanded this program which seems to have been started as a result of the Patriot Act (although it is probable that this kind of monitoring has gone on for a time considerably longer than since the passage of the Act. Based on comments from experts in the field, they have. Clearly, what has changed has been the ability of government to store massive amounts of data from phones and the web.
There are two questions here that I think are interesting. First, did Snowden violate the law? From the news reports he probably did, technically. But that is at once not a very interesting question. The more important one is what reasonable limits should be placed on the ability of the government to collect and use any of the data they collect? From my perspective, most people that work in security are cognizant of their intense responsibilities. But how do you prevent a rogue or a group of rogues from using the collected data. One of the valid criticisms of J. Edgar Hoover's reign in the FBI was that he collected and used confidential data, supposedly collected for national security purposes, to advance his career and to limit the roles of all sorts of people inside and outside the government. The PRISM program looks a lot like the Hoover files on steroids.
There are clearly some important public policy questions here. From the start it has been my opinion that the Patriot Act was sloppily drafted. Senator Mark Udall commented yesterday "The ultimate check, the ultimate balance is the American public understanding to what extent their calls are being collected, if only in the sense of metadata," he said. "Let's not have this law interpreted secretly, as it has been for the last number of years." There needs to be a balance between the legitimate need to collect information and the Constitutional guarantees to US Citizens against unreasonable search and seizure. From what we know about the role of the security agencies in collecting information about the Boston Marathon bombers, their competency in using information is certainly in question. That does not call for eliminating all data collection but it does call for a thoughtful review of what should be collected and how should it be used. For that, even if Snowden did break the law, we should not neglect this as an opportunity to step back and see whether "easy, efficient and valuable" is a legitimate policy goal.