From a distance, it looked like one of the social-media marketing campaigns that you trip up over all the time. It’s packed along the top with the brands and the logos of our digital age, like Facebook, Skype and YouTube.
But this wasn’t about marketing. Instead, it was a secret document distributed by the U.S. government on the information to be had through digital eavesdropping. Or, as the org chart called it, “what you will receive in collection” by way of surveillance or databases. It turns out to be quite the laundry list, from emails and chat transcripts to video, photos and notifications of a log-in.
This was just one of the details that has come to light in the last few days through the stunning leaks made possible by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old American who is currently seeking asylum.
Through leaks to The Guardian newspaper, Snowden revealed what can only be described as a massive governmental digital dragnet, capable of both gathering and storing vast amounts of phone records, Internet activity and communications that consumers probably assumed was private — or at least not being looked at by anyone other than an Internet service provider.
Guardian: Edward Snowden
This link will take you to the articles The Guardian has been publishing on Snowden, and what is arguably the most significant story on intelligence, security and privacy in quite some time.
Snowden worked in that industry, first with the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) before working for a private company, and then abandoning it all to become a whistleblower.
Last week, we learned about Prism, a surveillance program that had been silently siphoning vast quantities of personal details that providers (like Google and Facebook) insist was not voluntarily turned over.
On Sunday, Snowden identified himself as the source of the leak, and proclaimed that while he felt he had done nothing wrong, he was certain that “nothing good” was heading his way.
I found myself on Sunday spending quite a bit of time reading about Snowden, his revelations and what many people had to say about it all.
(One of the most interesting tidbits is why Snowden decided to flee to Hong Kong; while the city itself is freewheeling, China is hardly known for embracing liberty and eschewing state-run digital espionage.)
As I write this, I recognize that quite a bit has yet to emerge about Snowden, Prism and to what extent his claims (in a nutshell, that the U.S. government is spying on its own citizens) are true.
But it struck me that the revelations could be as influential and as potent as the Pentagon Papers were in 1971, when The New York Times began publishing documents that essentially exposed the myriad of lies and corruption involved in the U.S. war in Vietnam.
It turns out that none other than Daniel Ellsberg himself, who leaked the Pentagon Papers more than 40 years ago, sees the new story as more important than his own.
“In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material — and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago,” Ellsberg wrote earlier this week.
Ellsberg hails Snowden’s action as preventing “us from (turning into) the United Stasi of America,” a dig at the notorious East German secret police.
Snowden has his detractors, who see him on a continuum that ranges from an idealistic narcissist to a full-blown traitor who defected to another country.
For me, the debate is not about the individual, but the principle. While revelations continue to emerge, it may be useful to look at Snowden for now as someone who has ignited a debate about privacy, liberty, rights, surveillance, freedom of the press and the expectations of the state and the individual.
I don’t think it was coincidental that Snowden chose to end an interview with The Guardian with some words from Benjamin Franklin: “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”
John Gushue is a producer and
broadcaster with CBC News in St. John’s. Twitter: @johngushue