The Obama administration has announced data disclosure rules, allowing companies such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook to be more open about when the government demands access to user information. The regulations are part of the administration’s plan to reform National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programmes.
But for all the focus on transparency and disclosure, President Barack Obama dropped the tech talk when he was forced to justify the importance of the NSA’s mission.“Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms,” argued the president during recent remarks about these new regulations that circumscribe, ever so slightly, the information-gathering abilities of the NSA.
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Beginning his speech by alluding to individuals such as Paul Revere and World War II code breakers, the president hoped to depict the current struggles over who can gather, access, and employ information as part of a long and rich historical tradition. But history, it turns out, reveals that the links between information and freedom were far more convoluted than the president would have us believe.
History reminds us that an intelligence network that looks liberating, secure, and rational to one group of individuals is likely to seem oppressive, abusive, and corrupting to others. When it comes to information, the terms “security,” “openness,” and especially “freedom” only carry meaning when we ask questions: On what terms is security achieved? How do we measure openness and access? And freedom for whom?
As a historian who explores people’s relation to information, I am keenly aware of how, even centuries ago, people worried about not just the spread of information, but also its implication and power. In the colonial South, the time and place I research, English, Spanish, French, and a variety of Indian nations competed for control.
Nothing set English planters in South Carolina into more of a panic than rumours about a slave insurrection – a fact the Spanish officials in Florida gladly and repeatedly used to their advantage, spreading false information to disorient a more powerful rival.
That was not all. Spying, leaking vital and sometimes misleading evidence, and ordering the destruction of documents were not uncommon practices. Anxiety about how information could be employed or manipulated ran high in the colonial world.
What’s new today, in the so-called information age, is neither the preoccupation with information nor the efforts to control who can know what. Technology – new, fast, and moving – seems to be the twist to an old story. But the key word is seems.
I am constantly reminded that while the technologies are new, the questions are not. How much information should be disclosed? How is information made and stored? Who is or should be allowed to make those determinations?
Let us reconsider the relation between technology and information through a rather innocuous example: maps. While indignation and debate mark the recent NSA revelations, no one seems too enraged or bothered that Google, Apple, and Microsoft are gathering enormous amounts of data as they strive to create the best online maps.
A cover story of the New York Times Magazine seemed to laud the impressive efforts of Google to map even the most remote places.
But in touting Google as “the first” to map a road, a street, a whole region, we are committing two follies. First, and perhaps more tragically, we are silencing all other, older, and different conceptions of space and geography.
Although not the intention of these mapmakers, their images and designs fail to account for who owns, or claims to own the land? What would the Havasupai people say about Google’s efforts to map their land (i.e. the Grand Canyon)? Were they consulted? When those being represented are not getting or choosing to represent themselves, how secure, free, and liberalising is this information?
Second, by focusing on the technology – on what it can do and on the possibilities it affords – we forget the people. The way maps are constructed, their gaps and emphasis, tells us a great deal about their creators. After all, these were maps made by people with specific goals and ambitions.
Thinking of these maps (and the companies making them) only as trailblazers leads us to miss what exactly they are blazing. The focus should not exclusively be on the daring struggles to gather the data. That can backfire, especially when the people – man or corporation – behind the curtain prove more self interested than heroic.
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For all that can be and has been said about Edward Snowden, he put a face on an otherwise faceless story. He reminded us that technology and information is really a story about people. We tend to forget that, and let technology speak for us, as if it is somehow separate from us. Technology is a reflection of people, their biases and understandings.
It is that imperfection and bias – more than a seamless narrative about security or freedom – that history teaches us about information. I am constantly reminded that while the technologies are new, the questions are not. How much information should be disclosed? How is information made and stored? Who is or should be allowed to make those determinations?
Beyond a sensitivity that these problems have plagued people before, history forces me to be wary of drawing a direct line between intelligence gathering and freedom without first interrogating the power dynamics at play.
Alejandra Dubcovsky is an assistant professor of History at Yale University whose research and teaching focus on colonial America. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.