Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

National security, freedom and privacy: Looking for digital age answers

Sept. 17, 2013, 11:53 a.m., Posted by Eric Newton

Above: Security, Freedom and Privacy in the Digital Age, via YouTube

The digital age has brought America more information than any nation has had, ever. Big data helps us spot threats early, be they flu epidemics or terrorist attacks. But the more we know, the more questions we seem to have. To reap the benefits of the digital age, must we really give up privacy and freedom? Have we already?

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Watch "Security, Freedom and Privacy in the Digital Age" here at 9:30 a.m. ET on Sept. 18, 2013.

This year revelations have come regularly about the impact of the surveillance work of the National Security Agency, especially its Prism database. High-tech investigations stretched into the media realm with the seizure of Associated Press phone records and Fox News e-mails. Once, government agents knocked on doors with subpoenas to get what they needed for investigations. Now, it can happen digitally, instantly and secretly.

Given the flow of news, however, even important issues like these can drop from the spotlight. So  Wednesday, journalists, officials, analysts and advocates will gather at the Newseum beginning at 9:30 a.m. to continue the national conversation about “Security, Freedom and Privacy in the Digital Age.” The program will be live-streamed here. Journalists from major news organizations such as The Washington Postthe GuardianThe New York Times and PBS NewsHour will be there, as well as media lawyers, the civil liberties protection officer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and representatives from the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Tweet comments or questions to #NewseumNSA.

The opening panel will focus on the competing issues of security, freedom and privacy. Questions include: How far does current surveillance extend? Does it work? What does the government do to protect our civil liberties? Is there a way to ensure that a secret system operates within the law? Does participation in personalized media mean Americans automatically give up privacy? Does surveillance threaten the business model of digital media? Given the revelations about the NSA, what will happen next? Will the courts work this out? Are new laws needed?

The second panel will examine whether national security threatens press freedom. Has the age of digital document dumping made our government permanently more aggressive in cracking down? How will government abuse be checked if whistleblowers are jailed and journalists who write about them treated as criminals? Will the attorney general’s new policies prohibit actions like those against the Associated Press? Will the federal shield law working its way through Congress apply in national security cases? How does it define journalists?

Our co-sponsors include the Stanton Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and the Newseum Institute, which, with Northwestern University, sponsored this summer’s “NSA Surveillance Leaks: Fact and Fiction.” Laurel Bellows, president of the American Bar Association, framed the issue this way: “As lawyers, we should not be willing to accept sound-bite constitutional analysis… We are a nation of laws. Consequently, we should be concerned with whether checks and balances are in place.  Who authorized the surveillance, under what authority? Has that authorization been reviewed to determine whether it was lawful?”  Her questions, like many others about cyber law, cyber surveillance and cyber war, do not appear to have yet produced anything approaching final answers.

Eric Newton, special adviser to the president at Knight Foundation