By all means, let’s debate the NSA. Some policies seem suspect, spying on the heads of friendly governments topping the list. It’s also important to recognize that government can coerce and punish in ways that private markets cannot. The potential for abuse is greater. But let’s also keep the debate in perspective.
In a digitized world, spying must be digitized. Then there’s cyberwarfare. Our electronic systems remain vulnerable, as the recent theft of data from millions of credit and debit cards at Target demonstrates. Government and the private sector need to collaborate more closely to protect vital systems. But these “efforts are as good as dead for the foreseeable future,” says Dmitri Alperovitch of CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity firm. The NSA controversy has “significantly damaged the trust between the private sector and government.” This may be the Snowden affair’s most insidious (and overlooked) consequence.
Vilifying the NSA — letting Snowden dictate the terms of debate — promotes bad history and bad policy. It’s bad history, because the most powerful assaults on privacy have originated in markets. It’s bad policy, because weakening the NSA leaves the United States more exposed to cyberattacks.