Edward Snowden, a young, well-paid part-timer working for the American NSA (National Surveillance Agency), could have led a comfortable life doing what he was doing – but he chose to become a whistle blower. After telling Britain’s The Guardian newspaper that the Obama administration was engaged in illegally gathering data on millions of people around the world, he fled to Hong Kong, hoping that he stood some chance there of fighting American requests for his extradition which were sure to follow.
Actually, Snowden’s revelations aren’t anything extraordinary, say in comparison to the impact Wikileaks had. It’s a relatively minor Power point document detailing the Prism programme, more or less confirming what two other whistleblowers, Mark Klein and Thomas Drake, had said before -- that the US government was increasingly engaged in acquiring ‘general’ information on millions of people, on a random basis, with the active help of internet companies such as Google and Facebook, as well as telephone companies. Millions of calls were routinely recorded en masse via Prism.
The implications are devastating, and not just to Americans. Millions all over the world use the web, accessing and exchanging information with American-controlled databases and programmes. All this takes place on a basis of trust, and that’s why Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple have been floundering for a response to this debacle.
Users trust that email programmes, to take just one example, will not make the content of their messages available to a third party. All internet companies function on this basis of trust. If users don’t have a guarantee on the privacy of their information, the entire equation could collapse.
Just what sort of information are we talking about? It can be mundane, and look pretty harmless – emails about vacations, jobs, domestic matters, etc. But let’s look at this another way. Every regular computer user knows those pop up ads which spring up magically the moment they start using email, Face Book, or You Tube. The latter, for example, will display a number of ‘selected videos’ for the user right from the start. In other words, the companies have a profile of each user. They know his or her personal wishes, prejudices, preferences. They know who your friends are, and what you are talking about. Imagine that getting into the hands of a Big Brother government security agency.
People can still shrug and say ‘so what?’ If people watch wildlife, sports, history or sex via the net, or exchange information on such subjects, who cares if the government knows? But they would react more strongly if, for example, they still used snail mail and found out that the government regularly opened their letters illegally. What X. thinks of his aunt B. is strictly private. The government doesn’t need to know that.
That’s what privacy is all about. The current malpractices in the US are as old as anything, but they gained significant momentum during George W. Bush’s two terms, and have only become more widespread under Obama. The European Union has already protested to the US about the NSA’s Prism programme spying on millions on its citizens.
There is a greater danger to the third world, where most governments by nature tend to be totalitarian and repressive. There is little or no public debate about the value of privacy. Governments routinely use illegal means to silence critics or ‘unwanted elements.’ They use kidnapping, torture, blackmail, murder and illegal detention. The zone of privacy enjoyed by third world citizens is very small, and will become non existent if Prism-type programmes are used routinely to tap email and mobile phones.
In this context, the debate now going on in Europe and the US about Snowden’s revelations looks healthy and heartening. This may not result in ‘Obamagate’ and his fall, but there is a large outpouring of sympathy, both public and media, for him. Bruce Scheiner, an American expert on security, wrote this in reaction to Snowden’s revelations:
“Whistle-blowing is the moral response to immoral activity by those in power. What’s important here are government programmes and methods, not data about individuals. I understand I am asking for people to engage in illegal and dangerous behaviour. Do it carefully and do it safely, but -- and I am talking directly to you, person working on one of these secret and probably illegal programmes -- do it.
If you see something, say something. There are many people in the U.S. that will appreciate and admire you.
For the rest of us, we can help by protesting this war on whistle-blowers. We need to force our politicians not to punish them -- to investigate the abuses and not the messengers -- and to ensure that those unjustly persecuted can obtain redress.
Our government is putting its own self-interest ahead of the interests of the country. That needs to change.”
Snowden’s leak also added force to earlier claims that the security apparatus run by the most powerful government in the world has broken almost completely free of the checks and balances needed in a democracy. This trend, if continued unchecked, will put third world citizens, especially those working to hang on to whatever little democratic rights they still have, at even greater risk. It’s in our interests too, to see that the US doesn’t turn into a totalitarian state. The US is often hypocritical when it comes to third world rights abuses. But it is one of those voices – along with the EU and the UN – which reminds everyone that such rights exist in the first place. Who wants to see a totalitarian America which automatically sides with the abusers?