“Edward Snowden” and “NSA PRISM” are two keywords that will be popping up quite a bit on search engines this week, and if you have been following them even a little bit, you’ll understand why. Since the top secret government spy program broke late last week, people have been pretty ticked off about it, and it’s hard to blame them. Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, liberal, conservative, moderate — whatever your political positioning is, this is one of those rare occasions where it’s hard to see how we could disagree.
On Sunday, The Guardian announced the name of its source on NSA PRISM, and that name belonged to Edward Snowden, a former Central Intelligence Agency employee. Snowden is now hiding out in Hong Kong, fearful of what action the US government will take against him, but reportedly more fearful of what it means to live in a world where your every activity is available for the government to see at any time. More details will come out this week, and while we’ll let you make the call on whether Snowden is hero or villain, this debacle has brought to light some important lessons for the business world.
1. There are limits to good intentions.
The nine companies named in the top secret document have flat denied participation and in the case of Facebook and Apple, even refused any knowledge of the program’s existence until last week’s announcement. They know it’s a bad deal, regardless of whether they really knew about it or not, and so do the architects of the program, which, by the way, launched under President George W. Bush. But the Bush administration did not use it to the extent of the current administration. In fact, under this leadership, it has grown from collecting data from two agencies to a staggering nine, if you’re to believe the top secret information Edward Snowden made available to The Guardian and not the cookie-cutter PR statements of Google, Apple, Facebook, et al.
You can’t blame people for not trusting what their government and the alleged participating entities have had to say since the reveal, because for the most part, the explanations have been in conflict with one another, and hiding the program was shady to begin with. At least with the PATRIOT Act, people had the opportunity to criticize it from the beginning. This went much further than PATRIOT, though, with the ability to track every electronic transmission you send out — emails, phone calls, chats, hangouts, banking info, and passwords. Everything.
By the same token, you as a business leader may have the best intent for the things you try to do “under the radar,” but try explaining those intentions to the employee you’re exploiting and see how far it gets you.
2. You are always vulnerable.
One might think the highest levels of government are immune from having their skeletons revealed, but if it’s anything Edward Snowden has taught us, it’s that no entity — no matter how large — is safe. At day’s end, this increasingly digital world is still comprised of people, and people stand for things (or don’t). Following that line of logic, it doesn’t matter how many failsafes you think you’ve got in place. If you do something someone else finds unconscionable, you’re always in danger of being found out. No matter how big your company gets, you are always vulnerable and subject to accountability.
While it’s still too early to reveal any data on what the NSA PRISM scandal will do to President Obama’s sluggish approval rating, we think it’s a safe bet that by Friday, it won’t be tracking at 48 percent. And how did Snowden pull off one of the biggest reveals in the history of US government? By making photocopies from the NSA Office in Hawaii and telling his employer he’d be away for “a couple of weeks” to receive treatment for epilepsy, a condition he learned that he had in 2012. One of the most secretive agencies in the US, blistered by the mighty photocopy machine and an employee’s medical right to privacy. Think your business is any safer?
3. Compensation packages aren’t everything.
The least-stressed state in the US is Hawaii. It’s also where, until recently, Edward Snowden lived a comfortable life making $200,000 per year as a NSA employee. As quality of life is concerned, the 29-year-old would have been far better off keeping his mouth shut and living out the next 50 or 60 years in quiet tranquility. He has a girlfriend, a family. But according to Snowden himself in comments to The Guardian, “I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building. … I am not afraid because this is the choice I’ve made.”
As a business owner, you can throw money at people. Give them the best benefits. Match their 401Ks. But when you do something that crosses a line, nothing can, and nothing will, stop them from acting on their conscience.
4. Hypocrisy can run off your most enthusiastic supporters.
Edward Snowden was working for the CIA in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president over John McCain. By then, he was already feeling antsy about the amount of information the government knew. He chose not to come forward, however, because “Most of the secrets the CIA has are about people, not machines and systems, so I didn’t feel comfortable with disclosures that I thought could endanger anyone.” When America elected Obama, Snowden was swept up in the “hope and change” that promised the “most transparent administration” in response to Bush, whose policies Obama had derided all through the campaign trail. However, in 2009, he watched “as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in.” Consequently, “I got hardened.”
Furthermore, Snowden now believes that “what they’re doing [NSA]” translates to “an existential threat to democracy. … The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to.”
As a business, you can’t say one thing and do another. People will call you on it eventually.
5. The price of secrecy is often your credibility.
The National Security Agency has busied itself since the reveal of the NSA PRISM program by issuing explanations of how and when the program can be used. According to a fact sheet released by James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, the program may not be used to target American citizens, nor anyone on US soil, a detail reiterated by President Obama.
“When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama said during a recent press conference. “As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people’s names, and they’re not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.”
This damage control statement has done little to quell outrage, nor should it. If this is so “not a big deal,” as Clapper and the President would have you to believe, why did they not make this program known on their own and get out in front of the to-be-expected hostility? They may have had good intentions, but what’s that saying about the road to hell and how it’s paved? No amount of backtracking, nor carefully worded explanations are going to change the fact they have the CAPABILITY of seeing everything we do and say, and we’re just now finding out about it.
And therein lies what is perhaps the most important lesson a business can learn from Edward Snowden and NSA PRISM: secrecy often comes at the expense of your credibility. While employees don’t need to know every little detail, and there comes a point where disclosures can be counterproductive, you as a business leader know where the lines are drawn. If you plan on crossing them, be prepared for employees, customers, the press — whoever — to hold you accountable.
What are your thoughts on Edward Snowden spilling the beans on the NSA PRISM scandal? Sound off below.[Image via The Guardian]