Last Wednesday afternoon, Columbia Law Professor Eben Moglen gave the second part of four in his lecture series Snowden and the Future. A video and transcript of the lecture are now online. Bwogger Kevin Chen went to check it out.
I arrived early enough to see a flurry of activity, as people attached banners to the chalkboards with shipping tape and queued up Paul Robertson’s “Let My People Go” on the computer. By 4:30 PM, the room was nearly full with audience members: mostly older folks, with a few undergraduate students here and there. Professor Eben Moglen strode in calmly and confidently, pulled a yellowish sheet of notes from his jacket, and placed his watch on the table.
It took me awhile to get used to Moglen’s overly enunciated and often repetitive style, which I thought was better suited for a Charles Dickens book than a lecture on government surveillance. He began by saying that mass surveillance—listening in on every phone call and tracking every movement—is incompatible with a free society, because citizens aren’t able to discuss their government in private with only the people they choose. Without secrecy, anonymity, and autonomy, the components of privacy, Moglen argued that a true democracy cannot exist.
He then moved on to investigate the history of mass-surveillance programs in the US. Since the end of the Cold War, military planners have been planning to increase surveillance of private communications, by arguing that they were a “sanctuary for guerrillas” who benefited from American freedoms. Policymakers, however, consistently decided that this was a bad idea—until George W. Bush’s administration (a “think last and shoot first” president, according to Moglen). After the September 11 attacks, new spying programs were implemented, and by the time Barack Obama came into office, American, European, and Chinese policymakers all agreed on one thing: there’s nothing wrong with listening to everything. There was only one problem: “nobody told the people of the world.”
So the whistleblowing began. Those responsible for implementing these programs saw the wide gap between what people believed their rights were, and their actual rights. Snowden, for example, realized a system with so many opportunities for abuse should’ve been approved by the public.
Next, Moglen turned to more recent events: revelations that the NSA has been listening in on the German chancellor’s personal phone calls. Diplomats are outraged that the NSA might’ve spied on them too, even though they were likely the ones who supported and perhaps benefited from its implementation in the first place. As a result, the United States is considering not listening to the personal phone calls of world leaders while continuing to eavesdrop on the personal calls of everyone else.
Moglen left us with this: “You were lied to. Thoroughly. By everybody. For nearly twenty years. And the good news is that Mr. Snowden told you the truth.” Armed with the facts, he says, it’s now up to us to do something about it.