When Progress Leaves Us in the Dark

The Obama administration has prosecuted more government officials for media leaks than any other before it. Combined. The New York Times notes the government's ability to perpetually keep tabs on anyone with security clearance. This more vigorous approach can mostly be attributed to rapid advances in technology.

But to what extent will this cripple the media's role as a watchdog? If the government is punishing those who leak information pertaining to wrongdoing, where does the secrecy stop? And more importantly: what happens when technological progress makes society take a huge step back?

Previous administrations have refrained from being too zealous about punishing those who leaked information. Instead, they licked their wounds and tried to better protect classified information. A leak was more a check than a betrayal.

Now that it's possible to keep track of individuals locations and phone conversations and electronic communications with minimal manpower, suspicions and half-baked evidence of leaks have become hard truths. Footage from private surveillance cameras can be subpoenaed in court cases. It's understandable that one can't turn a blind eye to indisputable face like they could debatable ones. But damn, that doesn't make the reality—or our burgeoning technological landscape—any less disconcerting.

By squeezing off the ability of government officials to call foul on their peers, the American government is, in effect, imposing a form of censorship.

That's not a rallying against protecting matters of public safety. But like the NY Times points out, prosecuting the one who leaked information about an Al-Qaeda detainee who was tortured, and not prosecuting any of those who actually did the torturing (which isn't legal, BTW), is problematic.

Granted, the ones doing the leaking need to be smarter. Even without the specter of sophisticated tracking technology, using email as a form of clandestine communication seems immensely foolish. If people are going to operate beneath a shroud of secrecy in the name of accountability, they should put some effort into covering their tracks and reinstall that element of doubt.

But one has to wonder if 10, 20 or 30 years from now, it will even be possible to outwit Big Brother and accomplish anything without their knowing. Machines continue to grow more intelligent. The biggest tech companies continue to work closer and closer with the government. Our world continues to shrink.

Progress is progress, and it will happen, and it should happen. But it almost always comes at a cost. And in this case, it's one that makes me shudder. [NY Times]