My Apology Letter to Edward Snowden

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Nine months and counting – nine months since Edward Snowden first told the world that the US government logged the metadata of all telephone traffic. Shortly after came PRISM, involvement by the UK government’s GCHQ, and XKeyscore. We’ve learned that the NSA monitored communications of several world leaders, while also encouraging the use of weaker encryption standards. It’s been six months since I wrote that Edward Snowden’s continued evasion of US law enforcement failed to raise public awareness on the issue of mass surveillance, and instead only deflected attention.

It’s now time to admit – more than a half year later – that I was wrong.

Introspection is one of the most difficult processes any individual can undertake. Allowing events and new information to influence your opinions, even shifting them from your initial impressions, can be just as hard.
Six months ago I questioned the attention span of a rather apathetic US public, at least insofar as the debate over surveillance vs. security was concerned. Although I remain firm in my lamentations, what I have come to realize is that the Snowden affair, as it has so far unfolded, is exactly what we all needed to keep the debate alive. More than nine months later, the Snowden effect remains profound on both the public consciousness and information security realm – even if very few within the US Congress will do their part to ask the truly tough questions. One thing that much of our recent coverage underlines is that the Snowden effect has seeped into most – if not all – conversations occurring within this industry.

In the past I have questioned Snowden’s motivations for releasing information about classified intelligence methods. Was he doing it to be a hero? To make money? To gain a measure of fame? To become a martyr for the cause of privacy? Recently, I listened to a radio interview with two of the reporters Snowden continues to speak with – recipients of the information that continues to drip out like a slow leak. In personal conversations before the first NSA revelations were published, the reporters and Snowden himself fully expected they would be apprehended by law enforcement, with little idea what would become of their fate. Apparently, continued freedom was not part of their expectations, which likely dismisses the notion that Snowden released the information for money or fame.

So, were his intentions altruistic, in the public interest? I will not draw any conclusions based on the inner workings of another person’s mind, but only come to my own logical ones. What I do know, however, is that, contrary to my initial misgivings, Edward Snowden’s continued freedom, and the accompanying trickle of NSA-related surveillance tactics, makes the issue a long-term debate. The slow leak in this case has counterbalanced that attention span deficit I spoke of earlier.

The main concern now is the value of mass surveillance to the public at large, and not just the American public. If we are to believe – albeit sceptically – our political leaders, then such surveillance has operated in the public good, thwarting numerous terrorist attacks over the years. It makes me wonder, then, is it in our own best interest to continue receiving information about these surveillance activities? Are we better off not knowing? Individual views on privacy dictate how each of us will answer these questions, and thus far a largely indifferent American public continues to come down on the side of security rather than individual civil liberties.

In The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that “ruler and people alike, alienate their freedom only so far as it is to their advantage to do so”. If he is correct, it means the real debate here is can we permit surveillance in the realm of communications because it is to our advantage, thereby keeping us safer? Or does permitting such clandestine investigation begin that long slide down a slippery slope from which there is no possible return? I suppose the real question is how much do you trust the US government, and the social contract under which it operates? History has proven it to be a firm foundation, occasionally exhibiting a few cracks that require mending. In the end, however, the rights of the individual and personal freedom continue moving progressively forward. Any derivation from this course could lead to disaster.

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