Privacy as last line of defense: Snowden’s revelations changed the world in 2013
Sure, it has been an eventful year and there are a lot of contenders. But the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden stands out for me for three key reasons: his personal and conscious courage, the sheer scale of his disclosures and the continuing, global impact of what he did. Purely because of his actions, we, the world's citizens, are now able to have a discussion about the nature of our civilization and potentially call a halt to the frightening slide into a global surveillance dystopia.
For the actions of Snowden have indeed laid bare the fact that we are living in a global crisis of civilization. To date it is estimated that we have only seen about 1 percent of the documents he disclosed – the merest hint of the tip of a monstrous iceberg. What further horrors await us in 2014 and beyond?
The personal risk
First of all, there is the personal aspect. Snowden has said that he does not want to be the story, he wants the focus to remain on the information. I respect that, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the scale of sacrifice this young, just 30-year-old man has made. He had a well-paid job with a consulting firm in Hawaii servicing the US National Security Agency, good career prospects and an apparently happy relationship. All this he threw away to alert the world to the secret, illegal and dystopian surveillance system that has stealthily been smothering the world.
But Snowden faced far more than merely throwing away a comfortable professional life. Over the last few years the US government, apparently learning well from its former colonial master the UK about the art of crushing of whistleblowers, has been waging a war against what it now deems the “insider threat” – i.e. persons of conscience who speak out. President Obama has used the Espionage Act (1917) to persecute and prosecute more whistleblowers than all previous presidents in total before him.
This is indeed a “war on whistleblowers.” John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer who refused to participate in the torture program and then exposed it, it is currently languishing in prison; Thomas Drake, an earlier NSA whistleblower, was threatened with 35 years in prison; young Chelsea Manning was maltreated in prison, faced a kangaroo court, and is currently serving a 35-year sentence for the exposure of hideous war crimes against civilians in the Middle East. So the list goes on...
So not only did Edward Snowden turn his back on his career, he knew exactly the sheer scale of the legal risk he was taking when he went public, displaying bravery very much above and beyond the call of duty.
The intelligence apologists in the media have inevitably shouted “narcissism” about his brave step to out himself, rather than just leak the information anonymously. However, these establishment windbags are the real narcissists. Snowden correctly assessed that, had he not put his name to the disclosures, there would have been a witch-hunt targeting his former colleagues and he wanted to protect them. Plus, as he said in his very first public interview, he wanted to explain why he had done what he had done and what the implications were for the world.
The sheer scale and nature of the disclosures so far has been breathtaking, and they just keep coming. They show that a vast, subterranean surveillance state that has crept across the whole world, unknown and unchecked by the very politicians who are supposed to hold it to account. Indeed, not only have we learned that we are all under constant electronic surveillance, but these politicians are targeted too. This is a global secret state running amok and we are all now targets.
Only on Sunday, Der Spiegel reported more egregious examples of how the spies bug us: hardware hacks, computer viruses and even microwave wavelengths attacking both our computers and us. Perhaps tinfoil hats might not be such a bad idea after all....
Snowden's disclosures have laid bare the fact that the internet has been thoroughly hacked, subverted and indeed militarized against the people. The basic freedom of privacy, enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, has been destroyed.
Without free media, where we can all read, write, listen and discuss ideas freely and in privacy, we are all living in an Orwellian dystopia, and we are all potentially at risk. These media must be based on technologies that empower individual citizens, not corporations or foreign governments, and certainly not a shadowy and unaccountable secret state.
The central societal function of privacy is to create the space for citizens to resist the violation of their rights by governments and corporations. Privacy is the last line of defense historically against the most potentially dangerous organization that exists: the state.
By risking his life, Edward Snowden has allowed us all to see exactly the scale of the threat now facing us and to allow us the opportunity to resist. Every citizen on the planet owes him a debt of gratitude.
Therefore there is no ‘balance between privacy and security’ and this false dichotomy should not be part of any policy debate.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.