Edward Snowden, Individual Liberty and the Age of Information


“There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me’.”
―Philip K. Dick

Last week, Edward Snowden, former technical contractor and CIA employee, disclosed the details of the National Security Agency’s surveillance and intelligence programmes to The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers, leaving political havoc in his wake.

Snowden’s actions have incited varying responses. He was dubbed a “traitor” by US Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein, while others have hailed him as a hero, calling this revelation the most important leak in US history. Fearing his security, Snowden is currently in Hong Kong, with his political fate yet unknown. Last Sunday, the Guardian posted a controversial and insightful interview with Snowden on its website, which can be viewed here. In this article, I will be closely examining some of the most intriguing responses Snowden gives, and the larger political issues they link to.

The first question posed to Snowden by the interviewer, Glenn Greenwald, is regarding his decision to “blow the whistle” on the US government’s use of surveillance.

Greenwald: Walk people through that decision-making process.

He talks about government “abuses” becoming “a normal state of business” and draws attention, rather poignantly, to the danger of such instances and flagrant abuses of power becoming commonplace- a sort of immunisation developing. He is suggesting that continuous exposure to fairly damning evidence seems to dull one’s moral compass. This raises an intriguing question: is it the use of surveillance itself that he is criticising, or rather, is he highlighting what he perceives as a kind or moral indifference towards it?

What is even more intriguing is the next point he raises. The amplitude of the issue ought not be decided by government officials, but by members of the public, to whom the government officials are accountable in a liberal democracy. This, of course, links back to the question which has been asked since the birth of the free press: what exactly is in the public interest, and more importantly, who has the political mandate to decide this? This issue is far from being resolved, but if government officials, particularly in the Obama administration, ever want to regain public trust, they will have to formulate a half-decent response to it some time soon.

Greenwald: Talk a little bit about how the American surveillance state actually functions. Does it target the actions of Americans?

The next issue he raises in the interview is that the nature of surveillance and information collection undertaken by the NSA is indiscriminate. The ubiquitous and powerful nature of the system allows them to collect information on anyone, at any time. What Snowden specifically finds chilling is that all the evidence collected on the ordinary citizen may be interpreted in a way that can be used against them, which distorts the rule of law and places an unlawful monopoly of information in the government’s hands. To a degree, the point he raises here is a valid one. In light of these revelations, the extent of information gathered over individuals would in any other context require something akin to a search warrant- although this is not quite discussed when he later develops on the problem of individual liberty being infringed upon. However, the overall message is fairly clear: the surveillance used by nation states amasses to a pre-emptive criminal investigation. This is blatantly incompatible with the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”.

Greenwald: Have you given thought to what it is the US government’s response to your conduct is, in terms of what they might say about you, how they might try to depict you, what they might try to do to?

What is quite striking in Snowden’s response to this question is the relatively unflustered manner in which he lists the ways he could be punished: being rendered by the CIA, being hit with foreign attacks, being pursued by intelligence agencies for, potentially, the rest of his life. Later in the video, he highlights what it is exactly that he has given up; a comfortable pay cheque, job security and of course, political security. Whilst in some places in the interview he appears to view himself as something of a political martyr- which can be seen as a reasonable assessment- it is undeniable that Snowden is dedicated to his cause. The sheer value of what he has sacrificed in pursuit of government transparency and shedding light on the treatment of individual liberties shows that he is passionate about freedom.

Whether or not you agree with his actions, the courage of his “whistle-blowing” must be admired.


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