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Technology outpaces law in world of security

Neil Irwin (via SMH) | June 12, 2013
The lines are already being drawn over whether to view Edward Snowden as a hero or a villain but the debate over government surveillance should start with Gordon E. Moore.

Graffiti that is sympathetic to NSA leaker Edward Snowden in San Francisco. Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the security agency, recently leaked details about previously unknown US surveillance programs.
Graffiti that is sympathetic to NSA leaker Edward Snowden in San Francisco. Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the security agency, recently leaked details about previously unknown US surveillance programs. Photo: JUSTIN SULLIVAN

The lines are already being drawn over whether to view Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker, as a hero who blew the whistle on a dangerous government intrusion into privacy or a villain who criminally endangered our national security. But the debate over government surveillance should start with a different name: Gordon E. Moore.

Moore is the co-founder of Intel who in 1965 came up with "Moore's Law," which predicted that computing power would double every year. The trend has kept up for two generations and counting, causing exponential growth in computers' ability to process information.

When Moore's Law was conceived, and J. Edgar Hoover was at the height of his power running the FBI, a world in which the government could plausibly suck in all the data created by hundreds of millions of Americans or billions of earthlings was simply beyond imagining. (Well, not completely beyond imagining. George Orwell did a quite good job).

If you were a federal agent who wanted to intercept somebody's mail, you had to go down to the post office to get it. If you wanted to wiretap a phone call, you needed to physically install a wiretap. Read, for example, John Judis's account of being tailed by the FBI as a young radical in the 1960s and '70s, and think of the sheer manpower - and money -that was deployed to monitor every minor lefty activist of that era.

Of course, that variety of surveillance state was largely done away with in the post-Watergate reforms. Domestic spying was limited to investigations that obtained a warrant, which in turn required credible evidence of a crime before G-men could snoop. But the entire legal regime was still based on the premise that state monitoring of private communication was something that could only really be done by those traditional means of investigating a possible crime.

Fast-forward 30 years. Digital storage and computing speeds are such that it is within the technical capacity of the government to archive every telephone conversation on earth. I have at my fingertips, thanks to my Gmail account, every email I have written since 2005, nearly 26,000 separate conversations - and if Snowden's accusations about the NSA's Prism program are accurate, so does the National Security Agency (though there's a lot we don't know about what steps the government has to go through to exploit the technology). The Google servers alone contain vast quantities of information, instantly searchable, belonging to their many millions of customers, like me.

 

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