Whenever anyone talks about government surveillance in the United States, Edward Snowden usually comes up. I would say he’s the person who got the conversation about it going, but honestly there’s not much of a conversation happening. It’s one of those issues that pops up in the news every now and then, usually because he’s released some new bit of information to journalists, and then it immediately stops being talked about.
HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” did a great job of pointing this out this Spring in a man-on-the-street segment where Oliver asked people if they knew who Edward Snowden was, and the wrong answers people gave were both hilarious and sad.
The truth is, basically no average person really knows the story of what happened, so they either don’t care or have a wildly skewed idea of who he is.
These perceptions are usually framed by politics. Those who support the current National Security Agency (NSA) programs of bulk data collection, such as the Obama administration and most Republicans in Congress, frame Edward Snowden as a traitor who is making the United States more vulnerable to terrorism by exposing these practices.
Those practices being, in a nutshell, the collection of basically every piece of communication done through the Internet such as emails, communication through social networks and even communications off of the Internet such as phone records. The NSA then sits on the information and pinky-swears that they don’t look at it until they think they believe there is a credible threat. Only then do they get the legal go-ahead from a court. That court, conveniently, is a secret court that the public has no knowledge of because of national security interests.
Those who are opposed to these programs and, in a larger sense, the Patriot Act, such as most Democrats in Congress and Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul, cast him as a hero who is risking his freedom and possibly his life (as treason is punishable by death) by exposing these practices.
However, I think that a black-and-white perspective of Snowden is foolish. Politics is the quickest way to take out all nuance and critical thinking from an argument. I think the NSA’s data collection program is an overreach and, while I’m not a lawyer, seems pretty unconstitutional in regards to the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.
At the same time, I’m not sure Snowden’s motives are entirely altruistic. He obtained the information he’s been giving to journalists through his job as an independent contractor for the NSA. When he bolted with the information, he went directly to China, and when China wouldn’t take him, he went to Russia. Sure, neither of those countries have extradition treaties with the United States, but neither does practically all of Africa and most of Southeast Asia.
Ask yourself, what does a man who just took a bunch of classified information from the NSA have to offer Russia to keep him safe? Vladimir Putin might take in someone like Snowden just to put a finger in the eye of the United States, but I’m guessing he’d want the classified information more. I’m not saying Snowden wanted to sell government secrets, but I am saying he almost certainly traded them for safety.
The safety of the government’s secrets is only one part of this story though. The programs he revealed the details of are something important to talk about. I believe the big reason why the country has never had a real conversation about this issue is because most people don’t understand how it could affect them.
The “Last Week Tonight” segment did a great job of framing the debate in a way people understood. When the host, John Oliver, revealed the NSA had access to people’s “intimate” pictures, suddenly everyone who had previously not cared or not known about the issue was opposed to the NSA programs.
It’s not just your pictures the NSA has access to. Every email you’ve sent will most certainly have passed through an AT&T cable at some point. Fun fact: AT&T has been fully co-operating with the NSA since the Patriot Act was passed. So the NSA has all of your emails. Any personal information you’ve sent through an email, they’ve got it.
Legally, the NSA’s supposed to get permission to look at it. However, it’s all sitting there on their servers. Some employee, say, an independent contractor named Edward Snowden, could get their hands on it and do whatever they want. You see, it’s not just the government you have to worry about. It’s identity theft, revenge porn, those sorts of things perpetrated by some rogue employee who decides it would be fun to post all of this data on the internet for everyone to see, such as the people who posted the nude photos of celebrity women that they stole from Apple’s cloud storage service.
If Edward Snowden could get away from the NSA and escape the country to Russia with classified information, what’s stopping someone from getting away with everyone’s emails? Which brings me to another point: if politicians are worried about Snowden revealing these things making the nation less safe, then they should be demanding answers from the NSA about how he got away with it in the first place. The word “security” is in their name. They had one job. They couldn’t even do that right.