A thorn in the eye

20/01/2020

By Kristian Foss

If you never really understood the point of privacy laws, or found it hard to explain to others, you should read Edwards Snowden's new book, Permanent Record (Macmillan, September 2019). Partly structured like a novel, Snowden recounts his upbringing and events leading up to his dramatic decision to reveal the shocking mass surveillance by the United States National Security Agency (NSA). We follow him through his moral qualms, the execution of his plan, his flight to Hong Kong, and his attempts to gain asylum in Ecuador and 26 other countries before finding himself stranded in Russia.

For those who have forgotten the details that rattled the Western world in 2013, Snowden provided proof that confirmed the long-held suspicion that the United States was collecting personal data on a massive scale. The full extent of NSA's indiscriminate and all-encompassing collection of personal information came as a surprise.

Some may remember the PRISM program, which collected personal data directly from big data players such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and other US tech giants.

The revelations lead to a public outcry, followed by the introduction of some legal curbs on NSA's practices, and a reduction in the shameful cooperation between technology giants. In the European Union, the revelations caused an uproar. Few liked the idea that anyone, including politicians such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was made a target of NSA's data collection. The verification Snowden provided also effectively undercut Big Tech's lobbying efforts against the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which was being drafted at the time.

Snowden's moral qualms arose when his loyalty to the US government conflicted with his loyalty to the US Constitution, to which he had sworn an oath. Its fourth amendment reads:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized". [My emphasis]

The relevance is striking, even 233 years later.

The fourth amendment codifies one of the key ideas on which the United States is founded. These ideas have made the US great and has been an inspiration to peoples everywhere. Much later, these ideas, alongside the atrocities of the Second World War, inspired the formulation of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Counsel's Convention of Human Rights. In these, the right to privacy is central.

Respecting the great ideas in the US constitution and elsewhere is key to avoiding a drift into authoritarianism. But doing so can come at a high cost. Snowden's deliberations show the powerful disincentives to standing up for these ideals, when powerful organisations like the CIA and NSA can take your comfortable life away with a stroke and smear even the most noble and honest whistle-blower. Snowden's decision to risk everything reveals rare moral fabric.

Another sad outcome of the NSA's data collection overreach is that it may have inspired other countries, including the even more extreme surveillance system that China is working hard to impose on its subjects. Through its planned Social Credit System, which incorporates facial recognition from millions of cameras, as well as data from social media and numerous other sources, the world has never been closer to the dystopian society George Orwell laid out in his book titled 1984. Arguably, NSA's techno over-eagerness could have fostered technology and methods that may cost the citizens of China and other countries their privacy, and ultimately, their freedom.

On a more personal note, as someone with deep and loving bonds to the US, it is heart-breaking to see the country wander down this path. How is it that the USA, with its world-inspiring ideals, is letting its post-war global leadership erode?

A country with a constitution that inspired the world, which rebuilt war-torn Western Europe, created the UN and numerous frameworks for global cooperation, enjoyed significant goodwill and moral authority in most of the Western world until recently. Even as this political capital has eroded over time, it has remained considerable. However, the deterioration is accelerated by the chipping away at the very ideals that made America truly great. Even if this decline is aided by President Donald Trump's often questionable actions, it precedes him.

With that said, brave people like Edward Snowden, the protesters in Hong Kong and independent journalists give me hope. People who stand up to the machinery of state. For ideas.

Do you want more? Start here:

  • Impressive overview of the Snowden case with text and video, by The Guardian
  • "Citizenfour", documentary by Laura Poitras, 2014 (available on Netflix)
  • "Snowden", film by Oliver Stone, 2016 (available on Netflix)
  • "The Great Hack", documentary on the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, 2019 (Netflix)

And of course, read the book "Permanent Record" (Macmillan, September 2019)