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In our opinion: A year defined by Ed Snowden

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 31 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

FILE - In this image provided by Human Rights Watch, NSA leaker Edward Snowden, center, attends a news conference at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport with Sarah Harrison of WikiLeaks, left, Friday, July 12, 2013. The whole time Snowden has been seeking asylum, Harrison has been by his side. She has emerged as a central, if mysterious, figure in the saga that has taken Snowden across the world in an attempt to evade U.S. espionage charges. (AP Photo/Human Rights Watch, Tanya Lokshina, File)

Associated Press

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In popular culture, the end of the year typically is personified as a weary old man. Carrying on with that theme, the man representing 2013 should also be more skeptical about big government and its tendency to bypass checks and balances, and wiser about the need to guard against oppressive government.

Much of the news in 2013 was dominated by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency who obtained massive amounts of information on the secret data-gathering of that agency, then left the country. Ultimately, he found temporary asylum in Russia, and he currently is trying to find a more permanent arrangement somewhere else, while the United States has charged him with espionage.

Snowden’s motives have been difficult to gauge, although he at least appears to have little interest in causing real harm to U.S. national security. What is beyond question, however, is that he has initiated an important debate about civil liberties and constitutional limits on the gathering of information on innocent people.

So far, he has brought a measure of transparency to a government agency that has been gathering data on virtually every American’s electronic communications. Telephone and Internet data is being collected and analyzed in bulk, supposedly for use in searching for patterns or information that might raise suspicions about terrorist activity.

He also upset international relations, at least temporarily, by revealing that the agency was collecting data on certain allied foreign leaders, as well, and that the NSA was helping some other nation with their own data gathering.

Snowden told the Washington Post he feels, "I already won," in terms of his objective to get the nation to reassess its policies. He has a point. President Obama has said he may consider changing the way the NSA operates, especially in the wake of national outrage, but the government is not backing down from the felony charges it has leveled against Snowden.

Some of what was revealed is just the messy reality of espionage. Nations typically spy on each other, even if they are friendly. But the gathering of data on average Americans is unprecedented and disturbing.

One federal judge ruled it unconstitutional and said the government was unable to provide any evidence that the NSA’s practices have succeeded in revealing information important for national security. But another federal judge ruled the practices are OK.

The Supreme Court ultimately may settle the matter. Few issues are more important for the future of constitutional principles. That’s because technology isn’t going backwards. There is every reason to believe it will be easier to gather data in the future as the skies fill with unmanned drones and computers become a greater part of everyday life.

Government has long gathered information on innocent people, whether through motor vehicle registration, driver licenses, property records or other means. Sometimes, those records can be useful to law enforcement. But computer technology makes it possible to analyze bulk data in ways never before considered, and the opportunities for misusing that information have grown, as well.

There were many other important events and milestones in 2013, but we hope the year goes down in history as the time Americans began to lay the groundwork for policies and laws that preserve liberty and protect against government intrusions.

At least the dialog has begun. That’s a reason to smile in that “selfie” you take a midnight and post on the Internet.

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