an ethical challenge at the heart of the global surveillance state
I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what’s happening and goes, ‘This is something that’s not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.’ And I’m willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of them and say, ‘I didn’t change these, I didn’t modify the story. This is the truth; this is what’s happening. You should decide whether we need to be doing this.’
With these words, and throughout the above interview with The Guardian, Edward Snowden has taken a stand. He’s an average computer geek who never finished high school and learned his trade on the job, working for the US national intelligence agencies. Like thousands of other people within those agencies he was able to watch, day by day and in excruciating detail, the creation and development of immense surveillance capacities, operated by the US government against its own citizens and against hundreds of millions of innocent people around the world. Like so many others in his shoes, he worried about the possibilities of misuse that are latent in these massive surveillance capacities. He foresaw the day when they would be appropriated by political or military leadership at a moment of crisis, and used not against terrorists or enemies of democracy, but against political opponents, against principled critics and against other average individuals seeking to defend their constitutional rights. In advance of that moment, he did the real duty of citizens and persons of conscience. He made public the documents proving that the state, and specifically, the National Security Administration, is spying on me and you.
Until the current policy changes, my identity, the words I write here and the fact that you chose to read this page are known to the US government. If we are unable to change the surveillance policy of the United States, there is every chance that the simplest gestures of critical inquiry, both public and private, can and will be used against us. Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Skype, PalTalk and undoubtedly all the other major providers of “cloud computing” services, as well as all the major US cell-phone companies, will be the witnesses of the prosecution.
Since the days of DARPA’s Total Information Awareness project, the existence of this global spying program has been widely suspected. Since the revelations by NSA whistleblower William Binney at the Hackers On Planet Earth conference in 2012, it was clear that a massive surveillance machine had in fact been built, and was being operated by the NSA and by defense corporations such as Booz Allen Hamilton. Now the open secret has become a public fact, thanks to the disclosure of classified information by a courageous individual. In his interview with Glen Greenwald – which in my view is among the most powerful ethical documents of this young century – Edward Snowden looks us all in the eye and asks, what are we going to do about this situation? As Americans in particular, can we live and enjoy the privileges of life in this society, while knowing that the price of those privileges is complete subjection to the state?
Bradley Manning could be demonized – or just discounted as a loser – because he was a queer guy on an obscure military base, aided and abetted by a notorious hacker organization, Wikileaks, which is called outlaw and criminal by the US State Department. Edward Snowden, on the other hand, is as close to the technocratic heart of the American government as anyone could get. Crucially, he is very close to its most fair, honorable and reasonable components. Clearly he respects Manning and Wikileaks, since he has chosen a similar path. Yet his address to the public is far more direct, since he has openly identified himself and assumed responsibility for his actions in advance. With his disclosures, critique has moved from the margins to the center. The US intelligence agencies are now involved in a dilemma as profound as that of the Cold War, when the proliferation of double agents began to undermine the trustworthiness of any intelligence whatsoever. Of course there is a decisive difference. The double agent of the Cold War was split between allegiance to two rival sovereigns. Today’s leaker is split between his or her allegiance to the Administration or the Constitution. Are we subjects or are we citizens?
Like Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden poses a monumental threat to the security of the United States surveillance establishment. It is the threat that we the people will act, not as the complicit agents of a dark and secretive power, but as the public bearers of universal human rights and responsibilities:
Anyone in the positions of access with the technical capabilities that I had could suck out secrets, pass them on the open market to Russia; they always have an open door as we do. I had access to the full rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all over the world. The locations of every station, we have what their missions are and so forth. If I had just wanted to harm the US? You could shut down the surveillance system in an afternoon. But that’s not my intention. I think for anyone making that argument they need to think, if they were in my position and you live a privileged life, you’re living in Hawaii, in paradise, and making a ton of money, ‘What would it take you to leave everything behind?’
The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They’ll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society. But they won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.
And the months ahead, the years ahead it’s only going to get worse until eventually there will be a time where policies will change because the only thing that restricts the activities of the surveillance state are policy. Even our agreements with other sovereign governments, we consider that to be a stipulation of policy rather then a stipulation of law. And because of that a new leader will be elected, they’ll find the switch, say that ‘Because of the crisis, because of the dangers we face in the world, some new and unpredicted threat, we need more authority, we need more power.’ And there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it. And it will be turnkey tyranny.
We aren’t there yet. But we are at a turning point. There is now an historic chance to begin a broad-based movement against abusive government surveillance. This movement will build upon the sturdy foundations provided by thousands of people who have documented and denounced the construction of the global spy state. Its only chance is to construct a counter-power that redefines and reasserts democratic rights for the twenty-first century. As of this week, thanks to Edward Snowden and everyone who follows in his footsteps, that chance has ceased being a faint glimmer of hope. It has become a real possibility.