Viewpoint: The line between privacy, protection and the greater good

Who gets to define what the “greater good” is in a society? And who gets to decide the cost that must sometimes be paid in order to protect it?

It’s a timeless debate struck up anew with last week’s release of the Superman reboot, “Man of Steel,” and the reveal earlier in the week of the identity of the National Security Agency’s whistleblower, Edward Snowden.

If you’re feeling a little lost with how these two events relate to one another, don’t fret. We’ll run you up to speed. (We warn you, though, that there will be some minor spoilers for “Man of Steel,” so read at your own discretion.)

In “Man of Steel,” released last Friday and otherwise known as the new Superman movie that’s supposed to make us forget that previous terrible attempt at a reboot a few years back, the villain of the movie justifies his actions as being for the greater good of his people, even though his plans were going to end up with a lot of other people (read: humans) dead. A lot of the plot is Superman figuring out which greater good he wishes to serve: that of his biological people or his adopted people.

As for the NSA scandal, a NSA worker named Edward Snowden leaked private government documents to select newspapers detailing the fact that the United States has been hacking (or getting court orders) into its country’s private sectors, and confiscating and storing as much information on Google searches, cell phone calls and email messages by United States citizens that it can get a hold of. The official standpoint for the privacy intrusion is anti-terrorism, and that the invasion is OK, because a secret court is monitoring the programs to make sure they’re not doing anything too illegal. The general idea is that it’s for the greater good, even if it means that a whole lot of people’s private communications are going to be compromised.

We’re not saying Snowden is Superman and the NSA is the evil villain. But “Man of Steel” does bring up some interesting thoughts about the United States’ surveillance policies, namely how far we are willing to go to protect the greater good . . . and who should be the one to make that call.

There are no superpowered men from Krypton in our world, which leaves us with normal men — namely, the government.

An interesting plot point happens early on in “Man of Steel.” A particular world’s government (read: not Earth) has apparently failed its people and led them to the brink of imminent destruction. There are two men in the world who are trying to make it right, taking their own paths to preserve the greater good of the doomed society. One chooses violence, and the other chooses his own form of hope. The theme of the movie, in short, is about individuals making choices to protect the people they care about. One choice might seem better than another, depending on what point of view you see it from.

For years following Sept. 11, 2001, many in the private and public sectors have questioned how such an attack could have happened without someone knowing something about it. Whenever a terrorist attack has popped up since then, like the Boston Marathon Bombings earlier this year, the same questions appear. Some people blame the government for being sloppy and demand they do more to prevent these tragedies from happening.

However, with the NSA leak, it seems the government is doing much more than we initially would think, or even like to think. In order to protect us, government organizations are bypassing citizens’ rights to privacy. Is your privacy a small price to pay for the possibility of preventing a future terrorist attack? If it saves lives, then yeah, maybe that’s an argument worth having.

But to keep it so secret? That’s like a family friend rooting through all your stuff, including a diary with your darkest secrets, photocopying it and storing it on his iPad to be used for future reference — without letting you know he was doing so — because he’s concerned about serial killers, and since both serial killers and you are human, you are a suspect. We can’t imagine anyone would be particularly happy to find out that it happened and has been happening for years and, more importantly, that a trusted neighbor doesn’t really trust you.

In this case, that trusted family friend is the government and its surveillance programs. They have a basic idea of what they’re looking for, but since the signs of terrorism are not exactly textbook material all the time, they’re collecting and monitoring everything. Just in case. But we don’t need to know that, even though it’s our information they’re collecting.

In short, it seems the government doesn’t trust us to make the choices to protect ourselves. Snowden argues that his actions are to create a sense of transparency, to allow the people to monitor the government like it is monitoring them. In “Man of Steel,” Superman’s father gives him the chance to make his own choice. Indeed, as mentioned, the major movie theme is allowing people to make choices, even if they’re the wrong ones, because they deserve that chance.

We don’t consider Snowden a flat-out traitor for doing what other NSA workers have tried in the past — letting the public know what their government officials are doing with their private data. There will always be a fine balance to walk when protecting the greater good. But when someone — especially someone we’re supposed to trust — jumps over that line, it seems like there should be someone to question it and, if need be, call them out on it. We maybe don’t need Superman, but we do need a chance for open discussion, and an opportunity to put in our own say and make our own choices concerning what it takes to protect ourselves.