Now that the extent of the U.S. National Security Agency's surveillance programs has been exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, it's beholden on the public to fight back or else find themselves "complicit" in the activities, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguistics professor and philosopher Noam Chomsky.
The freedoms U.S. citizens have "weren't granted by gifts from above," Chomsky said during a panel discussion Friday at MIT. "They were won by popular struggle."
While U.S. officials have long cited national security as a rationale for domestic surveillance programs, that same argument has been used by the "most monstrous systems" in history, such as the Stasi secret police in the former East Germany, Chomsky said.
"The difference with the totalitarian states is the citizens couldn't do a lot about it," in contrast to the U.S., he added. "If we do not expose the plea of security and separate the parts that are valid from the parts that are not valid, then we are complicit."
He cited the still-in-development Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which critics say could have far-reaching implications for Internet use and intellectual property. Wikileaks recently posted a draft of the treaty's chapter on intellectual property.
Now that the information is out there, "we can do something about [the proposed TPP]," Chomsky said.
What's needed for sure "is a serious debate about what the lines should be" when it comes to government surveillance, said investigative reporter Barton Gellman, who has received NSA document leaks from Snowden, leading to a series of stories this year in the Washington Post. "Knowledge is power and it's much easier to win if the other side doesn't know there's a game."
"We can be confident that any system of power is going to try to use the best available technology to control and dominate and maximize their power," Chomsky said. "We can also be confident ... that they want to do it in secret."
But there's a crucial difference between the U.S. activities and that of the Stasi, Gellman said. "The Stasi was knowingly, deliberately and cautiously squashing dissent," he said. "I don't think that's what we're seeing here at all."
A smartphone is an excellent tracking device "from my location, to who I communicate with, to what I search for," he said while holding up his personal device. "I am paying Verizon Wireless on the order of [US]$1,000 a year for this."
Meanwhile, although telcos are making money by selling phone users' personal information to third parties, at the same time "the NSA could not do part of its job as efficiently if the companies weren't selling and retaining [customer] data," Gellman said.
Company disclosures and terms of service have limited benefit as well. "Generally the terms of service are written to say we can do whatever we want, in a lot of words," he said. Even if a customer reads through carefully and notes what pledges are being made, "you have no way of monitoring what they do," Gellman added.
Since publishing stories on the NSA surveillance programs, Gellman has stepped up his personal privacy efforts significantly, through "layered defenses" including "locked rooms, safes, and air-gapped computers that never have and never will touch the 'net," he said. The extra steps are "a giant tax on my time," Gellman added.
It's not clear how many more revelations will come to light from the materials Snowden gave Gellman and other journalists. Snowden reportedly gave reporters up to 200,000 documents.
"The [NSA] documents are far from complete," often providing clues to things that end up being wrong after further investigation, Gellman said.
Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is [email protected]