After spending a month this summer acting out a real-life version of The Terminal in a Moscow airport, Edward Snowden was recently granted asylum by Russia.
Great. Should we care?
Much like PFC Bradley Manning of WikiLeaks fame, who last week escaped prosecution on the most serious of his charges, aiding the enemy, Snowden used his position to access and leak confidential government information. And has since been alternately vilified and lauded as a hero. But what did he actually do? The revelation that the government has a surveillance program with the ability to monitor all of our online activity? Some revelation. Any high school dropout *cough* Snowden *cough* with a gift for hacking could snoop in on my Gmail account. I mean, somebody in China did it a couple months ago! So is anybody surprised to find out that the government has that capability?
A little naïve, I fear.
So Snowden had his “big reveal.” But what exactly was the point? Snowden’s claim is simply that he felt “the public needs to decide whether these programs or policies are right or wrong.” But who will benefit from his decision? Does the public actually gain anything from the unsurprising knowledge of government surveillance? Very little I feel. The ones who stand to gain the most from his actions are those whom the surveillance was targeting. Terrorists.
Thanks a lot, Snowden.
Says Ralph Cossa, President of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies, based in Hawaii as Snowden was, “I’m sure the guy had good intentions and had an overactive Mother Teresa gene and thought he was going to save Americans from Americans but in reality he was very foolish. We expect the government to honor our privacy, but we also expect our government to protect us from terrorist attacks.”
Harsher still is John Kerry’s assessment of Snowden’s actions: “People may die as a consequence of what this man did. It is possible that the United States would be attacked because terrorists may now know how to protect themselves in some way or another that they didn’t know before. This is a very dangerous act.”
The point, you could argue, is that it’s difficult to draw a line with NSA’s surveillance program. The government may claim that the program is used solely to combat terrorism, but how can we be sure that is in fact where it ends? Moreover, how far can they go? And how long before they turn into the East German Stasi or Orwell’s “Big Brother?” Snowden made the claim that “I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President.” Trouble is, that claim isn’t quite accurate. The focus of the NSA’s surveillance program is on the collection of metadata, essentially who we call and for how long. And that data is only used when somebody is already a suspect. But one supposes the government could use this metadata for nefarious purposes. Maybe.
Of course, this doesn’t completely excuse the existence of XKeyscore and PRISM, programs that allow the surveillance of all our internet activity. But two things strike me about that. One, what’s the worst that could happen if your internet records were tapped? Very little, unless you’ve got something to hide. For the vast majority of us it would have nothing more than the potential to be embarrassing. Yes NSA, a Taylor Swift music video was played on my computer multiple times (it’s my girlfriend’s fault!). Secondly, regarding the collection of all this online information about me… doesn’t Facebook already do that?
But apparently Americans, and terrorist networks, needed to know about all of this. So Snowden lept on his high horse, blew the whistle and then fled to Russia via Hong Kong… and now might never return to the United States because of it. But don’t worry too much about him. A dash of celebrity to go along with his notoriety, the ability to be a hero and welcomed with open arms in a number of South American countries, and the job offers already rolling in.
Call it a push.
David Wilson graduated from the University of Texas in 2006. Since then he has gone wherever the wind blows him, living in Europe, China, and the States, and traveling extensively throughout the rest of the world. When he’s not on the move, you can find him obsessing over latte art, playing piano, or trying to bleach his hair in the sunshine. Follow him on Twitter.