To paraphrase George Orwell, do we now sleep safely in our beds only because computer nerds stand ready to intercept emails, phone calls, text messages and other communications on our behalf?
Many people seem to think the answer to that question is yes.
But this does not preclude the need for government to have the consent of the governed; or the need from time to time to ventilate and debate the concerns that arise from government having the power and resources to monitor our day to day communications.
The current debate surrounding whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency’s top secret PRISM surveillance program was preceded in Australia by a similar debate about proposed laws to expand the Australian government’s intelligence and surveillance powers.
In some respects the revelations surrounding PRISM and the NSA’s surveillance operations aren’t really news. After all, it has long been the mission of the NSA and other intelligence agencies around the world to collect and keep electronic communications.
While there are a growing number of psychoanalyses of Snowden’s character and motivations and a wide ranging discussion on whether or not he is a hero or a traitor, perhaps the most interesting outcome from the whole affair is the education of the public about the powers of government intelligence agencies.
No doubt it came as a surprise to many that PRISM was a surveillance program, governed by the rule of law (in particular the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), and operating under the supervision of the courts.
This does not make the laws themselves right or good. There are a number of concerns with how these laws work, compounded by the fact that until recently, these activities were undertaken in secret.
The real value of Snowden’s actions has less to do with the content of leaks themselves, but in reminding us that governments everywhere have the power and resources to listen to our phone calls and read our emails.
Andrew Baker is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.