“In a time of Universal Deceit – telling the truth will become a revolutionary act”
George Orwell – 1984
On 9th June 2013 the Guardian newspaper posted online a video interview which would become the most explosive news story of the year, and, potentially, the decade. In it, Edward Snowden, at this point still an employee of the NSA, revealed that many of the world’s governments were not only spying on foreign targets but on their own citizens as well. The video was ran by every major news network and as the story filtered through on the six o’clock news the UK’s viewing population gasped…before promptly switching over to the One Show.
One year on and, for the man on the street, Snowden’s leaks remain about as shocking public as the news that night follows day – of course the government are spying on us, of course we’re being watched. Quite frankly, it would have been a bigger revelation if Snowden had proved our every move wasn’t being monitored. In a world where more than 1.2 billion people record their daily activities and eating habits on Facebook, is there really such a thing as online privacy anymore anyway?
Recently the Guardian (who originally published the story) claimed that a public opinion poll found that more Britons thought it was right for them to publish the leaks than thought it was wrong. According to the YouGov poll from which the statements were taken, more than a third (37%) of the British people thought it was right to publish. The triumphant nature of the paper’s headlines did little to cover the fact that 63% either thought that the Guardian were wrong or, even more damningly, simply did not care either way.
The outrage, or rather lack of, surrounding the Snowden leaks in the UK is unsurprising. There are, we presume, debates raging behind closed doors in Whitehall, Cheltenham et al. but in pubs and coffee shops across the country you’re unlikely to find open discussion of the latest regarding the misuse of metadata and algorithms. Especially not when Cheryl and Simon have come back to the X Factor.
Personally, I don’t care if the government knows where in the world I took a photograph, or that I get 50+ emails a day from Groupon offering me half price canvas prints, or that I phone my mother once a week and instantly regret it. In fact, if they want to listen in on that call it’s fine by me. Even better, they can speak to her themselves, I guarantee they’ll get bored of finding out about Mrs Johnson’s granddaughter’s great niece’s new puppy and hang up hours before she does.
So why did Snowden bother? He gave up his home in Hawaii, his $200k a year job and now lives in effective exile in Russia, constantly looking over his shoulder for fear of reprisal from the country of his birth. Upon revealing his identity Snowden stated “I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.” If true, it is a noble cause but there are many who believe that his motives were less than altruistic.
In a letter to German politician Hans-Christian Ströbele, he describes his decision to disclose classified U.S. government information as a “moral duty”, claiming “as a result of reporting these concerns, I have faced a severe and sustained campaign of prosecution that forced me from my family and home.” This may well be true, yet it is no more than Snowden originally expected. In his initial interview with Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald he categorically stated “I don’t expect to go home.” acknowledging a clear awareness that he’d broken U.S. law, but that doing so was an act of conscience.
Just a few short months later however, in his letter toStröeble, Snowden positions himself as a man being framed for crimes he didn’t commit. In a move strangely reminiscent of the film “Enemy of the State”, he refers to his leaks as a “public service” and an “act of political expression” and contends that “my government continues to treat dissent as defection, and seeks to criminalize political speech with felony charges that provide no defence.” Again, noble sentiment, but this is not Hollywood and Snowden is not Gene Hackman. He overlooks the fact that it was he himself who chose to flee rather than face charges. That he subsequently decided to criticise the fairness of the US legal system whilst safely ensconced inside a country whose human rights record is hazy at best, merely adds salt to the wound.
Over the past year, Snowden has been quick to capitalise on his new found notoriety. His appearances on mainstream outlets and events have increased (albeit via satellite link), public speaking engagements in his adopted home have become more frequent and he was even able to deliver the alternative Christmas address for Channel 4 in 2013. Hollywood movies of his story are now in the pipeline and, most recently, Poitras and Greenwald were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their work.
Alongside this, Snowden’s narcissism also appears to have grown. If he was truly acting in the public interest rather than his own then there should be no need for him to reveal his identity, it would not matter who the leaked the information, only that they did. Similarly, once his identity was revealed he should have no reason to flee. He would face the charges and take his punishment, secure in the knowledge that he was making a small personal sacrifice to secure the well-being of the world.
It is, however, not surprising that Snowden has ended up in Moscow. Seemingly, the former Soviet Union is the only country to have benefitted from the affair – Western security relationships have been weakened, public trust is crumbling and its intelligence agencies have been crippled. All the while Russia has strengthened. It’s “Anschluss” of Crimea from the Ukraine has more than a faint echo of history. If, as seems likely, former Cold War tensions are beginning to refreeze then it is beyond absurd to think that we should begin hampering our own intelligence. There can be no doubt that our foes and rivals, be they terrorist organisations or nation states, are watching our every move. Ungoverned by our self-imposed sanctions, they are able to glean as much information about our lives as they deem fit, so we must do the same.
The debate Snowden has opened is an important one. I agree that it is necessary to discuss just how meta-data is stored and used by government departments and companies and to ensure that it is safely stored and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. However, it is not so vital that we should compromise our own security and diplomacy for. In today’s world, nothing is.
Author: Andrew Cook
Andrew Cook has been a member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing since 2009 and is the Art Director and Digital Editor for CyberTalk Magazine. He is a graduate of the University of Newcastle and was awarded The Douglas Gilchrist Exhibition for Outstanding Achievement in 2007. Andrew’s interests include Graphic Design, 80s Sci-Fi movies and the music of David Bowie.
When he’s not doing any of these things, Andrew can usually be found making forts out of cushions and unsuccessfully attempting to dodge phone calls from his mother.