Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Learnable lessons from Manning, Snowden and inevitable others 21 – picking up the pieces

Posted in business and convergent technologies, in the News by Timothy Platt on March 3, 2014

This is my twenty second posting on what is becoming a series of leaks and unauthorized disclosures of classified US government documents that relate to its War on Terror (see John Peter Zenger, Henry L. Stimson, Edward J. Snowden and the challenge of free speech and the first 20 postings to this series, available at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 as postings 225 and loosely following.)

I am scheduling this posting to go live in early March, but find myself writing it in the morning of January 29, 2014 – the day after President Obama has just given his fifth State of the Union address. My timing in that is intentional and I add it is also significant to what I would write here. Annual State of the Union analyses and reviews are listed in Article 2, Section 3 of the United States Constitution as a requirement of office for the president. And every president since Woodrow Wilson has delivered these annual reports as a speech delivered before a joint session of Congress, with Supreme Court justices, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others in attendance. But first and foremost, and certainly for as long as these events have been televised, the most important audience for State of the Union addresses has been the American public, with the sitting president using this forum and this opportunity to both explain and to justify, and to gain support for actions taken and for policy and actions pursued.

I stated at the end of Part 20 of this series that I would address the reach for power and authority that has developed from the momentum of the United States’ system of covert surveillance programs – which are no longer as covert as planned for and intended. More specifically, I stated that I would:

• “Continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will consider how the leadership of the US agencies and departments participating in all of this, have sought to both further expand these programs and to leverage all of their activity here as a route to enhancing their own power and authority.”

And as a supplemental note in preparation for writing this I added “flesh out some more details on the international impact of this on specific businesses.”

The US National Security Agency, and I add seemingly every other agency, bureau or other governmental entity that has been involved in these programs have sought to expand their reach and their authority through them. And these programs have had adverse impact on American businesses, and certainly as word of their existence has become public knowledge. Both foreign governments with their personal privacy laws, and foreign-based businesses with their privacy and person information protection requirements and concerns, have found reason to question the capacity of American businesses to safeguard their customers’ personally identifiable information and other sensitive data. This has created road blocks and risk limitation barriers to trade and commerce and to the maintenance of supply chain and other business to business systems. And I have to add that American businesses have also taken some of the heat as other governments strike back at what they see as brazen intrusion from these surveillance programs too.

But I find myself coming back in my thinking today, to last night’s presidential speech, and to what led up to it, at least with regard to these far-reaching surveillance programs and their public identification. Over the past months, the Obama administration has been pursuing a process of adjustment. Their immediate reaction after the initial Snowden leaks was denial, which could not last more than fleetingly. Then they went on the attack against leakers, and for this, particularly against Edward Snowden. This, I add, is still actively continuing and both directly and through “outside” spokespersons.

Recently two members of Congress publically floated the suggestion that if Edward Snowden were to admit guilt to all changes leveled against him, a deal might be reached to reduce charges held against him and sentences imposed for them. He is still in Russia as of this writing, and a globally reaching groundswell of support for him and for what he did is still slowly growing. As I have now said many times now, I fully expect to see him being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his disclosures and for making them at such direct personal risk – though not with anything like United States government support or approval. But for purposes of this discussion it is that next stage in this process of adjustment that is most important: attempted negotiation and program protection and preservation.

President Barack Obama did not start the post-9/11 surveillance programs that he has fostered and expanded upon. But they are certainly his programs now. And he has invested a great deal of his authority and his reputation in them, and they will be seen as one of the key sets of issues that constitute his historical legacy too.

President Obama has been actively doing damage control for months now to try to reframe the discussion revolving around these surveillance programs and to preserve as much of them as possible against any challenge, and from the courts, from Congress, from international allies, or from the voice and force of public opinion. President Obama barely mentioned any of this at all in his fifth State of the Union address – his first such address since this complex news story first broke. Even listening for it, specifically wondering if and how he might address this controversy, I could easily have missed hearing him make note of it at all. He mentioned it very obliquely and with no details, once and as more of a non sequitur than anything else.

So I find myself in this posting, writing about President Obama’s effort to, if not expand then preserve his surveillance programs – and his intended historical record and legacy. And I finish this posting thinking back to Part 20, and back earlier to my discussion of the search for absolute security (see Part 15: the fallacy of absolute security and its allure 1 and its Part 16 and Part 17 continuations.)

President Obama has thought and acted according to an absolutist model here that has significant historical parallels and precedents. And to cite just one of still historically recent significance, I cite the domino theory, as developed and pursued with an intent to contain and stop an expansion of world communism.

• The domino theory was an existentially protective response to absolute perceived threat,
• And current all-encompassing surveillance programs such as PRISM and XKeyscore, and blanket surveillance of essentially all phone records can be seen as its balancing counterpart and as a renewed search for essentially the same absolute security.

President Obama is trying to establish and to acceptably define a balance between his vision of security and how it is to be enacted, and public perception and understanding of civil liberty and freedom from unwarranted intrusion. What comes out of this will historically define his legacy, and at least as much as his efforts at healthcare reform or tax law reform or any other initiatives that he would prefer to be remembered for.

I am going to end this posting with that note and simply add that I expect to return to this ongoing narrative as events continue to unfold related to it. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 and in my first Ubiquitous Computing and Communications directory page. I am also listing this under my In the News posting category.

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