The wailing and gnashing of teeth following this week’s revelations that the US government has been spying on people reminded me of that scene in Casablanca when Captain Renault blows his whistle and orders everyone to leave Rick’s café. “Clear the room at once,” Renault orders. Rick Blaine, Humphrey Bogart’s character, asks: “How can you close me up, on what grounds?”
“I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here,” Renault replies, before being handed his illicit winnings.
Some believe that Barack Obama’s second term presidency may not (or should not) survive the leaks by Ed Snowden, the ex CIA cyber-security expert turned National Security Agency (NSA) consultant turned whistle-blower on the PRISM project. Social media is exploding with debates on whether Snowdon, currently believed to be hiding out in Hong Kong, is a national hero or a traitor for leaking the covert details.
Were people really oblivious to the fact that national governments engage in cyber-sleuthery? I doubt it’s as glamorous a profession as Hollywood would have us believe but aren’t we in danger of getting the good guys and the bad guys mixed up here?
The Internet and digital technologies didn’t invent bad people but bad people use digital tools to plan and do bad things. It’s difficult to understand how we can expect our governments to protect our national and personal safety and security without taking the fight to the digital battlefield in the 21st century.
Unpalatable as it is, people on the side of good need to accept and resign some of our personal privacy to defend and protect the lives we all want to enjoy. It was always thus. Soldiers have sacrificed their lives for thousands of years to protect the freedoms of others. We have to be prepared to make different sacrifices in the digital age.
That is not to suggest that governments can act with maverick abandon and do what they want. But sometimes, we just have to trust those working on the inside to make the right decisions based on knowledge and insight the rest of us don’t and can never have. Do they screw it up from time to time? They do, but I’m prepared to accept they get it right at least as often as the rest of us get our jobs right.
It’s unrealistic to expect security services, even in a democracy, to double-check with the rest of us before their every move and action. To do so would render their armoury flaccid and the bad guys would carry on, unrestrained and emboldened.
I don’t relish living in a world where my phone calls may be monitored or my emails, Facebook status updates or blog posts supervised by bored, pale-faced civil servants staring at computer screens in dark basements in Fort Meade, Cheltenham or anywhere else. But I equally don’t want a world where bad people can steal money from my bank account or stalk my children online. I don’t want a world where terrorists hijack aeroplanes and point them at buildings or where children die at the finishing line of a marathon because they wanted to celebrate their dad’s completion of an athletic achievement.
I can’t answer the question whether Snowdon is a national hero or a traitor because I don’t have all the information, the insight or the crystal ball I would need to help me make that decision. But I live in the hope that someone else does. Bad people exist and they do bad things. Generally good people try to stop them.
As Rick Blaine almost said: “Maybe it won’t matter today. Maybe not tomorrow, but maybe soon and for the rest of our lives.”