Disclosure and its Discontents: Protecting Privacy in a Time of Surveillance

Colin Agur is one of the eight 2014 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2014 Seminar discussions.

In the 1825 farce play Paul Pry, the title character spies on his neighbors by asking third parties for details of their lives and leaving objects (often umbrellas) behind so he has an excuse to return unannounced. His catch-phrase, “I hope I don’t intrude,” is as contrived as his reasons for monitoring his neighbors. In the years following Paul Pry, government efforts to read letters in the post and telegrams sent over the wires eclipsed the threat of a bumbling snoop.[i] Today, in the wake of the Snowden disclosures, these concerns seem quaint. With powerful agencies monitoring our electronic communication, ours is a world of frequent and deep intrusions. Nosy neighbors are the least of our worries.

Surveillance was a recurring theme at this year’s Milton Wolf Seminar, held at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna. In formal sessions and social events spread over three days, the participants — an international mix of scholars and practitioners — explored how, in a time of increasing concerns about privacy and surveillance, diplomats, international organizations, the private sector, civil society, and the press can influence internet governance. The Snowden surveillance disclosures figured prominently in discussions about the capacities and…

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