Booz Allen's chance to make Americans feel secure

The gathering of people's personal data can be intrusive or it can provide protection. Booz Allen needs to show that the information it is charged with collecting is being used for good and will remain in safe hands.

It's never a good thing when headlines ask "Traitor or Hero?” Assuredly, the very question itself leads most to the conclusion that even if Edward Snowden might have intended to raise a public debate over top-secret leaks about US surveillance programs, he is mostly a traitor.

From a PR perspective, Snowden is off to such a bad start that he will most likely never recover his reputation and accomplish what he allegedly sought to do, which was to create a public debate over government surveillance. He has two big challenges that will almost be insurmountable to overcome at this point. The first is his credibility. The second is the fact that he fled after the “crime.”

It will be hard for any PR strategist to position Snowden as a positive role model. Look at former military intelligence analyst Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, the founder of the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. They are emblematic of what will happen to Snowden. Essentially, the only people who will side with him are the progressive left and the ACLU. The vast majority of people, “middle America” as the news commentators like to say, will never side with someone who betrays national security. Even fewer will find comfort that a man who says he wanted to start a discussion fled the scene to avoid it, anticipating the backlash. No one likes a cowardly leaker, even less so one that flees the country.

There might be more mock horror than real concern over government surveillance both by the media and with the public. If everyone was so deeply concerned, no one would be using social media, Facebook, Google, or the Internet, all of which are, unfortunately, as equally intrusive as the allegations and leaks put forward by Snowden. He is toast.

Booz Allen, on the other hand, has the power to end quickly this current discussion – however brief – about technology surveillance. Americans know that the Internet is being monitored, yet few are willing to give up their social media or email accounts. They just need some assurance.

Americans want to know they are safe, first and foremost. Do they question infringements on their privacy? Of course. Are they willing to sacrifice a little privacy to feel secure as they cross bridges to work, jump on a bus downtown, or enjoy a ball game from the packed stands? Most would say yes – absolutely.
And that is what Booz Allen must remind people of before they come to a vastly different conclusion on their own.

Privacy groups have already started blasting from the rooftops that Big Brother has arrived and they're making it clear with campaigns such as Stop Watching Us. It doesn't get any more visual than that.

It's especially important for Booz Allen to come clean when almost all of its budget comes from public money. The company is accountable to us, the taxpayers, and it is charged with helping to keep us secure.

The public needs to know two things: how the data it collects helps ensure the safety of this country and how it plans to prevent leaks – and potential security breaches – in the future.

It all comes down to safety and how Booz Allen can deliver it. The company needs to step forward to defend its reputation rather than stand quietly next to the National Security Administration (NSA). It needs to be in clear agreement with the NSA, pointing out that the data being collected has already prevented terrorist incidents.

It must also go a step further. It must outline for the public how it intends to make its internal organization more secure, so we won't have to deal with another Snowden. Company officials must outline how they plan to screen employees in the future and how they plan to prevent employee leaks.

The gathering of people's personal data can be intrusive or it can provide protection. Booz Allen needs to show that the information it is charged with collecting is being used for good, and that the information is – and will remain – in safe hands.

Sam Singer is president of Singer Associates in San Francisco. A former journalist and political campaign manager, he has spent the past 20-plus years helping a wide variety of clients develop their public affairs strategies. He can be reached at singer@singersf.com.

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