The first time Computerworld offered me a chance to write a privacy column, in April 2002, I argued that there had been "no terrorism toll on privacy" and laid out three criteria for when there would be. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's leaks this summer and subsequent government acknowledgments confirm that one of those criteria has now materialized, 11 years later.
What has been the American public's reaction to Snowden's revelations? Resigned acceptance, if not a bit of relief that our national defense has become so sophisticated. There has been no visible public groundswell against a perceived loss of privacy and freedom.
If Snowden's disclosures over the next few months become more alarming, however, a group of American swing voters may more clearly emerge in the polling data. Surprisingly bipartisan, young, and located in the blue states of the Northeast, this cohort will be receptive to enterprising politicians promising a citizen's privacy bill of rights.
Crossing the privacy Rubicon: One down, two to go
When Julius Caesar and his army crossed the River Rubicon on their march toward Rome, they thereby announced their rebellious challenge to the Roman emperor and passed a life-or-death point of no return. About a decade ago, civil-liberties advocates were warning that the Patriot Act had taken America across the privacy Rubicon.
I disagreed with them, but thought we'd be able to see three markers as we were crossing that privacy point of no return:
1) A widespread expansion in the scope of the government's collection of personal data,
2) Courts setting dangerous legal precedents, and finally,
3) A surge in the number of people harmed by abuses of government-collected data.
Snowden's disclosures have confirmed that the first of those three has come to pass.
What our views of Snowden say about us
I was wondering what Americans of different stripes thought about all of this. According to Der Spiegel, former President Jimmy Carter told a closed-door meeting (German-language link) in July that Snowden had done the right thing and that America no longer had a functioning democracy. In September, the European Parliament nominated Snowden for Europe's top human rights award. But Americans I've spoken to have been far more ambivalent about the exiled government contractor.
So last week I drilled through every poll on Snowden I could find, including a groundbreaking new study by the Lares Institute, a San Diego-based think tank focused on technology, privacy and information governance. What did I discover?