The recent rev­e­la­tion that the National Secu­rity Agency col­lects the per­sonal data of United States cit­i­zens, allies and ene­mies alike has broken the tra­di­tional model gov­erning the bond between sci­ence and society.

Most break­through tech­nolo­gies have dual uses. Think of atomic energy and the nuclear bomb or genetic engi­neering and bio­log­ical weapons. This ten­sion never gives way. Our only hope to over­coming it is to stop all research.

But that is unre­al­istic. Instead, the model we sci­en­tists follow is simple: We need to be trans­parent about the poten­tial use and misuse of our trade. We pub­lish our results, making them acces­sible to everyone. And when we do see the poten­tial for abuse, we speak up, urging society to reach a con­sensus on how to keep the good but outlaw the bad.

As the NSA secretly devel­oped its unpar­al­leled sur­veil­lance pro­gram, relying on a mix­ture of tools rooted in com­puter and social sci­ences, this model failed. Sci­en­tists whose work fueled these advances failed to force­fully artic­u­late the col­lat­eral dan­gers their tools pose. And a polit­ical lead­er­ship, intox­i­cated by the power of these tools, failed to keep their use within the strict limits of the Constitution.

 

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