Edward Snowden: hero or villain?
Edward Snowden gave up his $200,000 per annum salary, his “very comfortable” life in Hawaii with girlfriend Lindsay Mills and his freedom as a US citizen to reveal National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance practices, most notably the program PRISM which is used to monitor US and international citizens via phone tapping and internet usage. It is interesting that such a stupendous act of self-sacrifice by Snowden did not invoke huge public adulation from a nation that prides itself on allowing its citizens equal rights and freedoms for all.
The numerous stakeholders affected by Snowden’s revelations are not without clout, and in examining them it is easier to see why such exaltation has not been forthcoming.
The US government is purported to have initiated warrantless internet and phone surveillance programs in 2001, after the September 11th terrorist attacks, in conjunction with the private surveillance company Qwest. Programs designed to work through legal loop-holes were supported by the USA Patriot Act signed into law by George W. Bush later that year, which significantly weakened the judicial oversight of intelligence agencies within the United States.
To clarify, according to US law no legal warrant is needed to monitor foreign citizens, although a warrant is still required to gather intelligence on US citizens. Snowden’s revelations exposed the factual evidence that the government was actively stripping citizens of their rights under the 1st and 4th amendments. The first amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized,” clarifies the fourth.
In addition, the government are not aware of the extent of the leaks – i.e. what Snowden has or has not divulged to the press. They are also afraid of what Snowden could leak to other countries like Russia, who would be very interested in information regarding intelligence gathering in the US. Though Snowden asserts that he is not a spy or traitor, pressure by the US government for his capture could result in him bargaining for asylum.
Snowden’s revelations have also flagged up other governments that have run similar surveillance programs. The UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and France’s Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) services are believed to run PRISM – like programs without public knowledge.
Furthermore, his revelations have shown that the US has betrayed their EU allies by bugging and eavesdropping on EU meetings. However, these findings did not hinder European countries from rejecting Snowden’s asylum applications; the only countries to suggest that they will grant him asylum being Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia.
In addition, major internet giants Google, Microsoft, Facebook and the like consented to the NSA accessing their data without a warrant after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was made law in 2008. This law immunizes private companies from legal action when they co-operate with US intelligence agencies. Yahoo initially refused to hand over information on certain foreign users until the court ruled in favour of the NSA under the very same FISA Act. These companies are now facing backlash from their customers for complying without public knowledge.
Unsurprisingly, the mainstream media has been a key player in this case from the start. The Guardian newspaper was the first to get the scoop on Snowden’s case and broadcasted the initial interview. However, by their own admission they stated that they had left much of the information Snowden had given them out of public view. Similarly, many American newspapers and television channels are skewing the bias away from Snowden; Fox News referred to him as a “thief” and “stateless pariah” whose predicament is “a harsh lesson for his admirers”.
The control that mainstream media outlets are exercising over their exposure of this case could influence people who still believe that the mainstream media upholds its original tenets of impartiality. The recent lack of articles and news on Edward Snowden strongly indicates that much information is being withheld from us.
The party that have had their privacy encroached upon the most, of course, is the public. The warrantless collection of metadata, and the more alarming internet email monitoring and phone tapping is enabling people we do not know to snoop on us. Is the lightning speed acceleration of technological developments at the expense of our privacy?
We put so much information about ourselves on the internet, we assume that our security will automatically be respected. Should we now accept that Western governments have unadulterated access to our entire lives? Snowden revealed: “Even if you’re not doing anything wrong you are being watched and recorded.”
The reasons for the US Government to encroach on public liberties through the Patriot and FISA Acts, were given as critical steps for public protection from the terrorists. Snowden’s disclosures indicate that there has been a blurring of the boundaries, where there is no separation between domestic and international citizens, nor innocents and people suspected of criminal activities.
Snowden’s revelations divided the public into two main schools of thought: those suspicious of Edward Snowden and his motives and confident in the Government, and those suspicious of governmental motives and confident in Edward Snowden. If we look at both parties’ track records, we find that Snowden has had no previous criminal record and he has never been in breach of any US or international law until this point.
However, the US government has constantly been criticised for its human rights breaches, most recently in April by China who condemned their human rights record. The bypassing of the first and fourth amendments for international surveillance is not the only instance when the US government has disregarded public consensus. Guantanamo Bay, which Obama promised to close by 2010, is still open and Amnesty International has reported that out of the now 166 detainees most were incarcerated without a trial. Similarly, the recent George Zimmerman case meant that loop-holes in the US judicial system freed a killer who shot an unarmed boy, despite public outcries.
Internet giants provide easy internet freedoms like Facebook and Google, which give the public a false sense of security. However, the ease with which they were willing to co-operate with the US government’s FISA Act indicates that their real motives are purely self-serving.
Co-operating with the government has huge benefits, especially for corporate giants where their tax liabilities can be eased, even if it is at the expense of their customers – the public. This relationship is symbiotic as the mass use of internet by the public has enabled governments to eavesdrop with impunity.
The media’s traditional role is one of protecting public freedoms and liberties. However, regarding Edward Snowden’s disclosures, the media has not portrayed a positive angle and has tended to follow the government line. Should we not be questioning why?
The US government has been coercing other governments not to entertain any requests for asylum from Edward Snowden. Ecuador’s initial rhetoric that it “doesn’t accept pressure nor threats from anybody” and won’t be “bullied” into submission from the US royally backfired when they had to eat their words.
Similarly, even after revelations that the EU had been spied on by the US, no European country was willing to jeopardise their relationship with the US by granting Edward Snowden asylum and only made token gestures of annoyance at the US duplicity. Other countries like the UK and France, who run similar surveillance programs on their people have kept very quiet on the issue.
For a super power like the US to exercise its muscle on other governments, global corporations and the media, abuses public trust and reinforces the stereotype of an empire in decline.