Pandora, Oppenheimer, Snowden, and You

Greek mythology has a story we know today as Pandora Box. It was actually a large jar, but that’s beside the point. Pandora opened it, unleashing evil into the world. She tried to put the evil back in the box but that was impossible.

In 1905 Albert Einstein came up with the special theory of relativity, which we know as E = mc2. In 1942, the United States government chose to take Einstein’s revelation and weaponize it under the Manhattan Project. The result was the atomic bomb.

Since then, activists from all over the world have been trying to undo nuclear weapons, including people like Robert Oppenheimer, who was in charge of the Manhattan Project. Needless to say nuclear weapons still exist, and are all too accessible by a nation with the will to seek it out.

The dream of a totalitarian state is total control. One of the best ways to make that dream/nightmare a reality is through total awareness, or, it’s human equivalent, total surveillance.

The United States is now collecting nearly all Internet traffic and, according to Wired, storing it in a data center in Utah. At the time of its creation, the very ideas behind the data center were illegal in the minds of most U.S. citizens. But, according to the New York Times, the government had a caveat known as FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court, which secretly gave the power to the U.S. Intelligence agencies to spy on everyone, without a warrant.

While I was having auditions for ALGORITHM, I asked the hopeful actors if they’d heard of Edward Snowden or any of his revelations. Most didn’t know. Those who did know didn’t care. 

Most people, including a woman I spoke with just last week, still don’t care. Her response was fairly common, “Why do you care? What have you got to hide?” I responded, “I don’t have anything to hide. But that’s not the point. I simply don’t trust another human being to judge me based on the biases they bring to the table. The possibility for corruption is too great.”

And, in reading Edward Snowden’s testimony to the EU (that’s a 12 page .pdf), it’s clear that my mistrust is accurately placed. Snowden references this surveillance information being used for just the kinds of corrupt purposes one might expect: from using webcam data from Yahoo to smear people whose views may not coincide with the State, to studying how best to exploit this kind of data to divide activist groups.

Even the governments recognize that they’re breaking the law, in the eyes of their citizenry, so they’ve begun to reword their defenses. To paraphrase Snowden’s testimony, the guilty governments used to use the term “National Security,” but no act of “National Security” has been stopped by the use of this data gathering. Now, they’re using the term “valid foreign intelligence purposes,” which is much scarier.

Snowden argues for a broadening of the use of encryption to make it economically unfeasible to crack, and thus for government agencies to watch/listen/read. But, that Utah data center was designed to store data until it becomes crackable, which is simply a matter of time.

Pandora couldn’t put the evil back in the jar. Oppenheimer couldn’t stop nuclear proliferation. We cannot put back surveillance. The question is, what should our reaction to these things be? When Pandora looked back into the jar she had opened, there was one small thing left. Hope. What should we hope for? How should we act to make that hope a reality?