The continuing disclosures about National Security Agency (NSA) leaks are either totally unsurprising, or the stuff of shock and outrage. Spying on friendly governments and their citizens? Tell us something new, right? Still, many ordinary people around the world are genuinely alarmed. Each new Snowden leak—mostly recently, that the NSA has broken into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world to collect data from hundreds of millions of user accounts—is either earth-shattering news, or simply confirms what many already knew or suspected.
Wikileaks triggered similar debates: What did we already know? What should we have known? Who should have known it?
It's true that spying by governments—including spying on their own citizens, enemies, allies, and frenemies—is not new. It’s even expected, post 9/11, and comes as no surprise to government insiders. But the vast scale of NSA spying, enabled by our nation’s shift to a high-velocity digital infrastructure, is novel. Millions of ordinary people suddenly have detailed knowledge that only insiders previously had. Their shock at the extent of the spying is real and consequential.
But focusing on who-knew-what-when misses the real significance of the ongoing Snowden leaks. Civil libertarians and digital freedom activists assert that the issue is less about whether governments spy on each other and their citizens, and far more about how our massive, digital infrastructure is rapidly eroding our long-standing and accepted boundaries between society’s insiders (those “in the know”) and those who know far less—insider-outsider boundaries that diplomacy, good governance, and politics have relied on for centuries.
Suddenly, those who were once exclusively privy to the inner-most secrets of our government are not the only insiders anymore. “Our digital tools have empowered dissenting insiders and are emboldening them to shine a light on all sorts of shadows previously left uninvestigated,” says sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, “ensuring there will always be dissenting insiders if an action is controversial or if oversight is weak.” There will be more Edward Snowdens, she asserts, because leaking is not only getting easier, it’s becoming more expected, if not more respectable. Public polling data continues to reflect rising support for Snowden’s whistle-blowing.
And the blurring of lines between who’s inside and out is happening everywhere. According to digital researcher danah boyd, it’s why teens are leaving Facebook in droves; they’re spooked by their parents’ ability to interrupt their insider postings with embarrassingly jarring, off-topic commentary or “reminders to bring a sweater.” It’s why institutions are finding that the internal communications they meant for a few insiders are suddenly exposed to the world. Consider last year’s high-profile leak by a dissenting insider at the Komen Foundation, disclosing the breast cancer nonprofit’s plans to defund Planned Parenthood under political pressure from GOP opponents. The leak, which Komen’s leaders refused to address for days amid supporter uproar, spread like wildfire through social media networks, and cost the organization thousands of supporters and millions of dollars in lost or cancelled contributions—the organization has never fully recovered.
The eroding insider-outsider boundaries fostered by our expanding digital infrastructure are also upsetting political strategists. This past weekend’s progressive Stop Watching Us rally against NSA spying began as a progressive anti-NSA rally, but Libertarian groups insisting that they should be included just days prior to the event crashed it. The resulting “joined-hands” dissent against government excess triggered a controversial, pre-rally blog post by writer Tom Watson, who urged some of the biggest names in civil liberties and digital freedom of information to stay home rather than march with political outsiders: “[Progressive] organizers trade their own good names and reputations to stand alongside—and convey legitimacy to—a [Libertarian Party] that opposes communitarian participation in liberal society and rejects the very role of government itself.” Critics of Watson’s column accused him of working against political compromise. Supporters, though, suggested that the Libertarians were intentionally crashing a political party not meant for them but unavoidably open, thanks to the digital political infrastructure that makes insider strategy secrets—and organized surprise—ever-harder to handle on all levels. (An informal data survey of marchers revealed that crashers mixed in with political compromisers from all sides of the political spectrum.)
Information will always be power, but now more people have it—and increasingly, they’re not always the “right” people, depending on who is drawing the lines. Our 21st-century governance and leadership can no longer depend on old, established norms about what constitutes “proper” levels of public knowledge and who gets to know more. Security clearances? No longer are those at the top of the leadership pyramid that can control access—nor the conversation.
What really makes the Snowden leaks so provocative—and, frankly, so unsettling to so many—has less to do with Edward Snowden and much more to do with the power of our digital tools to flip who’s out and who’s in—across society.
“The outsiders are peeking in and moving in, and they are here to stay,” says Tufekci. That is the big story to watch. Each new Snowden leak is just another wake-up call about how profoundly our digital tools are redefining the balance of power, big and small.