Finally, and perhaps most significantly, American and British Internet and telecommunication companies are under economic pressure, set to lose disgruntled customers at home and large contracts abroad. This last damage multiplies all previous ones.
The bottom line is sobering: The benefits of the Snowden leaks are abstract, mediated, uncertain, and slow to take shape—the damage is concrete, immediate, certain, and adds up fast.
Some may retort that it was the NSA and its allies who created this damage in the first place, not Snowden and his allies. But this argument is problematic: Spy agencies spy, all of them. Suggesting that all secrecy is bad is plainly naïve. Instead there is a moral case to be made for open democracies to have the most capable intelligence agencies, operating lawfully with robust oversight mechanisms. No liberal mind can want the NSA to sit in Beijing or Moscow.
Yes, NSA and GCHQ may have overstepped their bounds. But that doesn’t mean that all signal intelligence is wrong. The prize question is therefore what they should be able to do and what they should not be able to do—and the answer has to be a conceptual and principled one. Revealing more programs and more details will not bring us any closer to an answer.
The stakes are monumental. Anger and a state of subdued panic prevail at NSA and at GCHQ. Spies cannot drive this debate. Neither will governments, for fear of stoking a fire and provoking even more revelations. It is therefore the responsibility of intellectuals and public experts to add balance and nuance to a shrill debate.
So far, this is not happening. Bruce Schneier, a widely respected computer security expert, recently wrote in the Guardian that the NSA “broke a fundamental social contract,” and then implied that revealing intelligence operations, a form of civil disobedience, would be “the moral thing to do.”
As usual, the inconvenient truth is more complicated: Gauging if, and how, NSA may have broken the social contract is hard—intelligence successes, after all, are far less visible than intelligence failures. But it is easy to see that revealing more intelligence operations may indeed undermine the social contract. Sometimes protecting secrets is the moral thing to do.
Editors and journalists have a huge responsibility in this case. But so far, the newspapers in question have painted the false picture that NSA and GCHQ focused their collection on allies, international organizations, or even their own citizens, not the real threats in the Middle East and beyond. Scandal sells. But responsible journalism means that financially struggling newspapers should resist the temptation to abuse the Snowden files for profiteering. Responsible journalism also means that angry reporters should resist the temptation for revenge.
The New York Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post, and Glenn Greenwald have to make a careful consideration before revealing yet another story: Will the new details do more good than harm? Responsible journalism, in short, means making a hard moral choice: Have we reached the point at which the remaining evidence needs to be returned or destroyed, voluntarily?
It is not for activist journalists and reborn cypherpunks to decide. That decision is for the sovereign, that is, the public—in the United States and in the United Kingdom.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.