Thursday, June 13, 2013

What will we think of Snowden in one year?

A few days after he leaked news of a National Security Agency program that collects information about Americans’ phone calls and emails, Edward Snowden told the world he was responsible for the leak. He gave a video interview to Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian.
Before the interview hit the web, there were three general reactions to the leak from our esteemed Congress:

This is terrible!

We knew this was happening! What’s the big deal?
We knew this was happening! We think it’s terrible and tried to stop it!

Clearly Congress knew about it and had different comfort levels (read: re-election needs) where government surveillance and personal privacy were concerned. The truth is we all knew there had been some Orwellian stuff going on for years thanks to the Patriot Act. The question really is why was the government being so secretive about the details?
Right on cue, the partisan noise began. There are Republicans who ten years ago were saying that information gathering was crucial to national security but are now appalled and violated. There are Democrats who are now saying it’s just fine but ten years ago were having aneurysms in response to Bush’s intelligence policies.

Beyond the polarized rhetoric are deeply troubling questions raised by Snowden’s leaks. First off, why does someone who is no longer even working for a federal agency, but a government contractor capable of scooping up all of this information about the government’s practices and making it public? Why did he, a relatively low-level employee, have all the capabilities he describes in the interview? (If he did, there are countless others who do.)  Perhaps the biggest question of this whole story, why is the government not being forth coming about its security practices when it directly involves the privacy of its citizens?
When the story first broke, I understood on the surface why Snowden wanted the public to know that the government is bending the rules to get the information that they need/want/think they need. But I didn’t initially see what the big deal was.

Call me a cynic, but I have always assumed that the United States government has a habit of bending the rules. It’s a superpower. It’s the biggest, most influential government on the planet. With that kind of power comes some level of corruption. If you’re uncomfortable with the word corruption, call it misuse of power. But is it really new?
After a little thought, I realized it is. Although I think there has always been some level of shadiness within our government, this kind of sinister invasion is new because of the nature of the internet and technology. This kind of data mining was never possible in other eras.

The reason Snowden left his cushy home and job was to tell the world that the American government has a penchant not only for working in the shadows but secretly being where it does not belong. Snowden’s core problem with the government is that it routinely grants itself rampant and unilateral powers.
Unless I’m giving him too much credit, I think Snowden’s goal was to create a public discussion about what we as a society are willing or not willing to give up in terms of privacy in the name of security. It’s a topic that comes up again and again since 9/11 and yet we still have not managed to come up with any definitive decisions. The concept gets volleyed around from time to time and then gets dropped in the next news cycle.

Everyone is now trying to label Snowden a hero or a villain. I certainly wouldn’t call him a villain, but I wouldn’t go as far as hero either. Just one rather shallow reason is that there are much cooler ways he could have broken this news. Staying anonymous would have automatically made it cooler for me. But I do think that he did this for reasons outside himself – for what he perceives as the greater good. I suppose there is the possibility that he could make a sweet payday on this…there always is nowadays. But for right now, he’s in some pretty serious trouble. There’s a greater possibility that he’s going to jail for a long time. Now we have to wait and see if this dramatic act of Snowden's will actually make a difference.
Another interesting facet of this story will be watching how aggressively an administration so fond of the idea of transparency will be with its most high profile whistle-blower.  Just like there was no way Anthony Weiner could post ridiculous pictures of himself online or Mark Sanford could go “hiking on the Appalachian trail” without being found out, the government as a whole is no longer immune to news in real-time. Let’s see how they deal with it.