Authority in the Age of Transparency: Obama’s NSA Press Conference

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Ramona and Jesse watched the Obama NSA press conference live from an online stream, albeit in different cities. Like everyone else watching, they were curious, and hopeful, but not that hopeful. Here’s what came of their conversation:

What is the future of authority in the age of transparency? How can leaders exercise power and pursue their mandate in an environment of constant scrutiny and little secrecy?

What is the future of authority in the age of transparency?

When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States he probably had no idea that the US Government would be subject to the forced transparency that has been imposed upon them by individuals like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden. Or, that in the digitally saturated 21st century, privacy would become a pressing public issue.

On January 17th President Obama offered his first attempt at justifying and explaining the ongoing surveillance and technical interference that US intelligence agencies, namely the NSA, have wrought upon the internet and the world. “The power of new technologies means there are fewer and fewer technical restraints on what we can do,” said the president. But just because we can do anything, doesn’t mean we should.

Trust and Power

As anyone versed in superhero justice knows, with great power comes great responsibility. When it comes to our personal information and our constitutional right to privacy, our leaders are right now asking us to “trust them,” but have they proven that they have been – or will be – responsible with the great power that they hold?

Billed as surveillance reform, the speech featured rhetorical justification, and the reduced agency of humans and governments in an era of rapid technological change. The Poet in Chief of the United States hoped that his prose might be enough to persuade Americans, and assure their allies, that restraint was being exercised, that the true potential of the technology was not being utilized.

There is a fine line between what is possible, what is necessary, and what is tyranny. Identifying that line is only possible with full public participation and debate; managing that line is only possible through true democracy where the public’s voices are heard.

Surveillance as it exists in our society today comprises more myth than understanding, a rumour of what is possible, rather than an audit of what is being done.

Yet President Obama did not choose reform, and would not wax poetically about any of this if it were up to him. No, the remarks offered on Jan 17th 2014 were a reflection of pressure arising from forced transparency, one month after a US federal judge questioned whether  the NSA’s bulk collection and storage of telephone metadata was constitutional, calling it an “almost Orwellian” violation of rights. A growing insistence on the part of the public, that privacy is an issue that they want a say over – not unlike voter issues such as birth control or the right to control arms. A real sense that the legitimacy of US authority, that the legitimacy of the US President is called into doubt when secret and potentially illegal activities are embarrassingly revealed.

Conversation versus Persuasion

The mistake being made is to believe that communications is the appropriate response to transparency. That rather than reform, rather than change, the acceptable means of managing such exposure is to talk your way out of it, use your poetry as a means of persuasion.

Failing that, the other apparent option was to privatize the surveillance in general. Don’t trust the government? Maybe big business gives you greater peace of mind. What about the companies who we spied on to get the info in the first place? How about we just leave it with them and access it when we need it? Is that really a better alternative?

In spite of President Obama’s decision to try and dodge the issue, the public debate over surveillance reform and privacy is only just beginning. As privacy becomes an ever more public issue, a voters issue, how will leadership change? Who will step up? Who will be willing to be held accountable? What new voices will emerge?

The next chapter will undoubtedly feature a new breed of politician – hacktivists, spies, and citizen journalists – competing and maybe even tweeting for the hearts and minds of the public.

RamonaPringle Ramona Pringle is the host and producer of She is a faculty member in the RTA School of Media at Ryerson University and writer and director of Avatar Secrets, and interactive documentary for the iPad. Follow Ramona on Twitter, @ramonapringle.


Jesse Hirsh is a collaborator and contributor on Rdigitalife.Jesse Hirsh is a national technology correspondent for CBC, and a technology researcher and pundit. He is a friend and contributor to Rdigitalife. Follow Jesse on Twitter, @jessehirsh.

For more on privacy in the digital age, check out our series with The Walrus, Private Life.


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