Like him or hate him, it’s important to pay attention to the growing story about Edward Snowden. The 29-year-old is the source of a huge block of U.S. National Security Administration (NSA) classified information leaked first to The Guardian in Britain.
The information included details on U.S. warrantless tracking of overseas and cellular phone calls, along with massive data-mining programs, like one called PRISM, that have collected huge amounts of data on everyday Internet users, including information on the use of social networking sites like Facebook and areas as detailed as your Google searches.
It is a breathtakingly broad reach by any standard, allowing oversight and analysis of the data use of
any individual — whether they’re accused or being investigated for a crime or not.
Snowden says the system is so precise that those with the proper clearances can use it to mine the lives of virtually anyone anywhere — and that it operates without democratic oversight in a world where the ends justify means that may well be illegal.
Snowden says he carefully crafted the material he released — enough to show, in broad strokes, what U.S. security forces were doing, but in limited enough detail to protect the lives of those involved in dangerous work for the agencies.
He also says if making money was his goal, he could have sold the information to hostile powers for millions.
Instead, he says he’s taking a stand on principle.
“If you realize that that’s the world you helped create and it is going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation and extend the capabilities of this architecture of oppression, you realize that you might be willing to accept any risks and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is,” Snowden said in a wide-ranging interview that was posted on the Internet.
“I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t, in good conscience, allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”
NSA chiefs were “intent on making every conversation and every form of behaviour in the world known to them,” he said.
“I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity. The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to.”
Not only a power that it’s not entitled to: a power that it has used post-911 security edicts to carefully hide from American voters. For the electorate’s own good, even U.S. legislators have been gagged about government actions that started under George W. Bush and have expanded ever since.
Snowden’s biggest fear? At the end of the interview, he said he’s concerned that the world might just keep on going, ignoring the actions of the American government.
I think that fear is wholly justified. More and more, it seems like we are solely interested in the things that directly affect our individual lives: what we can buy, what we want, what we see. Broader concerns about ethics and the actions of our governments to limit or affect our human rights garner much less attention.
It is as if nothing our governments do matter — as if any means to an end is welcome — as long as the economy runs on time.
Monday, the Globe and Mail pointed out that Defence Minister Peter MacKay has also approved the collection of Internet and telephone “metadata” — meaning that security forces in this country can, without warrants, gather the details of where and when communications are made, as long as the contents of those communications aren’t collected as well.
Hello, slippery slope.
Snowden’s right: Western democracies, ours included, are busy mouthing freedom while building electronic oppression.
And if nobody gives a damn, there will be a next step, and then another.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.