I frequently take the the top voted question from readers and answer it on the blog. With 64 votes, today’s winner was submitted by Imran:
Life under Surveillance: Issues and Options?
Edward Snowden will go down in history as a hero. A quick look at the history of The Pentagon Papers and the story of Daniel Ellsberg reveals easy comparisons. Just like the legacy of presidents, we are bad at evaluating the long term impacts of leaks, revelations, scandals and whistleblowers. With every year that goes by we’ll see a continued shift to his positive recognition. I know many people call Snowden a traitor and in many ways he is. But there is no rule that says you can’t be a hero and a traitor simultaneously. Remember that all of the American founding fathers were traitors. The very idea of whistleblowing is defined by betraying the system in power, yet it is a primary way major corruption is revealed. As painful and risky as it is, if it succeeds in generating enough attention it is a rare forcing function for change. If Snowden came back to America I’d likely support the filing of charges against him but also hold him up as hero: they’re not mutually exclusive.
Regarding life under surveillance, personal technology made it unavoidable as surveillance is the business model of the web. The only surprise is we’re living in A Brave New World and not 1984. We are willing and mostly happy participants. That’s the funny thing about most dystopian movies: they underestimate what we’re willing to accept in the name of convenience. Every week we hear a new story of people being fired over Facebook posts or tweets, or stories of credit card numbers and passwords being hacked, and mostly we just shrug. On a personal level we don’t see the stakes as being very high, and we don’t have an understanding of how surveillance undermines any notion of democracy or republic based government. We don’t think through how it impacts journalists, and how central journalists are to protecting our freedoms. And it’s hard to grasp the reality that when certain things are taken away they won’t ever return.
On the positive side, republics like the United States are sleeping giants of consciousness. Americans are a sluggish bunch when it comes to caring about what’s going on in the world or even the daily business of how our governments run. But every now and then an issue that has been slowly weighing on the collective consciousness slides to the forefront, and we have unexpected and dramatic change. 17 states now support gay-marriage, a staggering number given how long this issue has lingered and been debated in America. When American values truly shift, the politicians feel it under their feet and change their stance accordingly. The question is what exactly has to happen for that ground to shift for Americans regarding surveillance, whether it’s privacy from corporations or true freedom of information from the government?
The rub with surveillance is, unlike most social issues, there are huge corporate forces benefiting from surveillance in one form or another. Political issues like legalizing marijuana, or reducing discrimination, are complex enough without the direct line to profits lurking in the center of protecting information about citizens. That’s what I find terrifying: when the interests of government and corporations align against citizens.
Are American people okey-dokey with NSA’s data dragnet?
The short answer is yes. Awareness of NSA’s behavior has not led to the formation of a political movement. A major contribution to the acceptance of the NSA’s actions is the feeling of fatalism many Americans have about government. They’re so detached from how it works they’ve long given up on it representing them or responding to their concerns. Snowden’s disclosures were a wake up call, but it was too abstract. It revealed generalities of abuse, not specific and emotional stories of how a family or a neighbor had data about them used against them. Most of us have a hard time connecting the dots to what our lives will be like if we don’t fight for these policies to change. There will need to be other, louder, more personally resonant, wake up calls before enough Americans rally around demanding stronger safeguards for the government’s access to data about its citizens.
[Update: Ellsberg commentary on Snowden]