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On Privacy and the Culture of Leaks

I’m not sure if this was exclusive to my generation or even just to my elementary and middle schools, but growing up there existed a pervasive myth: if you said the words “president,” and “bomb,” within a minute of each other over the phone, the FBI would be at your house within minutes. As this was in the earliest stages of the (public) internet, I have no idea how widespread this notion was, but it was a well-known part of my childhood. Interestingly, no one seemed to mind it. We were just kids, of course, but in most ways it was viewed as a sign of strength–almost as a token of nationalistic pride. Our government knows all; don’t cross it.

As we grew up, the Bond movies were revamped with Pierce Brosnan and later Daniel Craig. Shows like “24” and “Alias” unveiled a world in which top secret authorities had virtually unlimited access to all the information that they needed. As adults, we get sucked into NCIS marathons and gleefully watch Abby hack into any system or hard drive she wants in order to unlock the necessary intelligence. Yes, we are a generation that grew up believing–or maybe wanting to believe–that our government had an omniscient quality; at least in theory.

However, as that theory becomes more like reality, my generation is not pleased or unphased, but disgusted. A recent CNN poll revealed that those under age 50 are much less likely to value security over privacy. The libertarian movement has erupted among the nation’s younger generation, leading to Ron Paul’s relevance and a push back against privacy invasions of all kinds, often celebrating WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning, and now Edward Snowden.

But not me. In fact, I am more worried by the leaks than I am about the information collection. You see, when I assumed growing up that some secret government agency probably knew everything about me, I took solace in the fact that they wouldn’t tell anyone. If you are covertly or illegally acquiring information, you can’t tell people that you have that information, and you can’t use it in court against me. It can only be used in some pretty extreme circumstances, and I’m not really mixed up in anything that crazy. In fact, the original document leaker, Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers, was not prosecuted because evidence against him was acquired illegally through wiretaps. Thus, any information the government collected on me was known only to a select few, and would stay that way.

But in a world in which leaks are viewed as heroic acts; when disclosing classified information gives you instant notoriety (be it fame or infamy), I no longer have that assurance. Now that leaking is seemingly becoming en vogue, any information that the government may collect on me could at any point be leaked to the public. Top secret won’t necessarily stay that way. I always figured that the government has bigger fish to fry than to read my gchats and facebook messages, but that doesn’t mean I’d like them exposed to the public.

Having a top secret (or higher) clearance is a responsibility. It means that you are willing and able to safeguard information and use it judiciously. When that wall breaks down and classified becomes public… when it becomes trendy to “expose” that information to the media or to WikiLeaks or to anywhere else… my information is no longer safe. Maybe it’s naive to trust government entities with my day to day life, but being granted a clearance used to mean that I could trust you. And I sure would rather have it in their hands than in everyone’s.

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