2013: “A government task force is preparing legislation that would pressure companies such as Facebook and Google to enable law enforcement officials to intercept online communications as they occur.” 2014: “Politically, it’s plutonium now for a member of Congress in this environment to be supporting something that would enhance the government’s ability to conduct electronic surveillance.”
What happened? You guessed it: everyone’s favorite hero/villain/demon/saint, Edward Snowden, who was granted asylum in Russia exactly one year ago. This week, the tech industry threw its weight behind a bill that proposes “sweeping curbs on NSA surveillance” and “would represent the most significant reform of government surveillance authorities since Congress passed the USA Patriot Act 13 years ago.” And it could actually pass — again, thanks to Snowden.
So when does the man get his medal?
A lot of people, including Dianne Feinstein and John Kerry (and Marc Andreessen), still think of Snowden as a traitor. Mind you, in theory, treason requires “helping or supporting an enemy.” I’m not sure which enemy they have in mind: Russia? China? Edward Epstein insinuates that the Snowden affair was a foreign espionage operation all along, but the man himself claims he took no secret files to Russia and was able to protect them from Chinese spies as well.
Do the people of Earth count as an enemy?
The anti-Snowden brigade generally claim that he should have worked within the system to blow the whistle on it, and/or should have returned to the USA to face the subsequent music — although it has since become apparent that the NSA has not been completely forthcoming about Snowden’s attempts to express his concerns without going public.
Quite aside from self-preservation, it’s pretty obvious that Snowden would have been enormously less effective over the last year if he’d returned and been clapped into solitary a la Chelsea Manning. (“The law he has been charged under doesn’t let him make his case in front of a jury,” according to the EFF’s Trevor Timm, accepting a Crunchie on Snowden’s behalf.) Instead he’s been able to chat with Sergey Brin at TED, appear on panels with Daniel Ellsberg, etc., and get his message out via telepresence.
But you know what? It’s a moot point. Even if Snowden was an outright foreign spy all along, on a results-based analysis, he would still deserve a medal — because, despite our vestigial Cold-War anti-commie knee-jerk reactions, the truth is that we live in a time when the greatest threat to the American way of life is America itself.
(No, not Al-Qaeda and their ilk. Sure, they are a problem, but they pale before America’s irrational, paranoid, xenophobic, massive overreaction to them and similar threats. You have to wonder exactly how long American authoritarians believe they should have carte blanche to do whatever they want in the sacred name of national security because a bunch of crazed madmen got lucky thirteen years ago. Another decade? Another century? Forever?)
There was a fascinating Foreign Policy article this week about Singapore’s attempts to use mass surveillance and good old Big Data to “engineer a more harmonious society.” That’s essentially what the pro-NSA people are supporting, even if they don’t realize it:
Many American spooks have traveled to Singapore to study the program firsthand. They are drawn not just to Singapore’s embrace of mass surveillance but also to the country’s curious mix of democracy and authoritarianism … In Singapore, electronic surveillance of residents and visitors is pervasive and widely accepted … [the government] has the legal authority to monitor all manner of electronic communications, including phone calls, under several domestic security laws aimed at preventing terrorism, prosecuting drug dealing, and blocking the printing of “undesirable” material
I’m sure Singapore’s warrantless panopticon seems very desirable to those spooks who went to learn from it. The police rarely demur when they are handed the tools of a police state, and the people who dictate or benefit from a system rarely object to any expansion of its power. But pervasive surveillance preemptively suppresses and subdues dissent, whether that is its intent or not; and regardless of his intent, Edward Snowden’s revelations helped America, and the West as a whole, back away from that slippery slope, for now. I look forward to the medal ceremony.
Postscript: I’ll be in Las Vegas this week to cover the Black Hat / DefCon / B-Sides security conferences, in my idiosyncratic way. (My personal biases on the subject should now be extremely apparent.) Wave hi if you see me, and/or let me know if you have something interesting to discuss while I’m there.