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Ron Miller: After Snowden, what kind of country does America want to be?

The really important question right now isn't what to do about Edward Snowden; it's how much surveillance is tolerable in a free society

By Ron Miller
January 14, 2014 02:09 PM ET

Computerworld - On New Year's Day, The New York Times finally caught up with my assertion that we should forgive Edward Snowden and let him come home, because in the end he did us a service by letting us know what was going on behind the scenes at the National Security Agency. Good for the Times, but I've been thinking that it's actually time to move beyond Snowden and get to the heart of the matter.

Now that the genie is out of the bottle, what the heck are we going to do about it?

Whether Snowden is a hero or a villain really doesn't much matter anymore. Yes, we like to personalize these things, but whether Snowden is a good guy or a bad guy isn't the big question right now. It's not the act of revelation that really matters; it's what was revealed. The fact is he released a bunch of documents to the press that showed what most of us consider a shocking level of surveillance on ordinary U.S. citizens, world leaders and other people around the world.

The NSA wasn't just collecting data on suspected terrorists. It was apparently collecting just about anything it could get its hands on. And now we have to decide just how much surveillance is tolerable in a free society.

I don't think many people, even those who think Snowden should be tried for treason, believe that we should be like the old East German state, where surveillance was so pervasive that no one could trust anyone else, not even their own neighbors. That state rotted from the inside for a lot of reasons, including its own paranoia.

But what do we want to be?

I hear lots of people talking about the rule of law, and that seems a good place to start. The U.S. Constitution outlines all of our rights as U.S. citizens -- subject to interpretation by the courts, of course. It includes a right to privacy, a recognition of the fact that we are innocent until proven guilty, and a right against unreasonable search and seizure.

And what has the Snowden affair shown us about the state of those rights? I would suggest that it has shown that the government is invading our privacy on a regular basis and is assuming the guilt of any citizen who accesses the Internet. How else can it justify harvesting as much data as its computer systems can process? And it appears to be seizing all of our data on a regular basis, which by any measure has to be considered unreasonable.

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