MAYBE it’s the Assange effect, but my first instinct was to dismiss Edward Snowden as an attention-seeking egotist.
Like Snowden, Julian Assange was deified for risking his safety to put state secrets into the public domain until he used some of those secrets as a bargaining tool and it became obvious not only that his passion for transparency did not extend to his own behaviour, but that he was the kind of lowlife who’d ask his friends to stand bail, then do a bunk.
Assange has called Snowden a hero for revealing details of the National Security Agency’s top-secret Prism project (which allows officials to collect material including search histories, the content of e-mails, file transfers and live chats from internet giants such as Facebook) while claiming that the reason the British government warned airlines not to bring the 29-year-old infrastructure analyst to the UK is that it’s afraid of “ending up with another Assange”. This is a self-aggrandising claim which conveniently overlooks the fact that first and foremost Assange is fighting extradition to Sweden for the rape and sexual assault of two women.
Meanwhile, Snowden has distanced himself, insisting that, unlike some whistleblowers, he scrutinised every piece of information he released to make sure its disclosure was in the public interest.
Still, Snowden’s comments have echoes of Assange’s messianic zeal; the dramatic unveiling of his identity and his lofty declaration that his own suffering will be worth it “if the irresistible executive powers that rule the world I love are revealed even for an instant” could easily be seen as the behaviour of a man bent on creating his own myth.
I also thought his revelations were a bit “meh” to begin with. We know any information we put on social media sites is scrutinised, if only by future employers and supermarket chains, don’t we? How surprising is it, really, that the NSA and GCHQ, organisations whose sole purpose is to eavesdrop, could be spying on their citizens, particularly when you think about the rise in homegrown terrorism? Compared to the scandals of rendition and drone strikes, the trawling of our phone and internet records seems relatively benign, particularly if you’re the kind of person whose e-mail exchanges are more likely to bore the interceptor.
The idea that if you have nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear leads us to downplay the significance of the scandal. Hence, even as many people across the political spectrum were railing against this realisation of the Big Brother society, others were chuckling at a Tumblr blog featuring a series of photos of Barack Obama apparently dipping in to our inane ramblings.
Snowden realised there was a danger of his revelations being swept up in a tide of apathy because the public had accepted they had no right to privacy in a digital age. Yet, when examined closely, those revelations are about far more than whether or not a bunch of spooks know we’re checking the football results or discussing Doctor Who; they’re about the way in which the US government now appears to believe it has a licence to operate outwith the constitution or the law. So convinced is it of its moral authority, it thinks it can justify Prism’s existence by saying it was sanctioned by a secret court and monitored by a handful of congressional leaders, even though there has been no national discussion on the ethics of blanket monitoring.
At the centre of the controversy is a 42-slide Power Point which shows the NSA has been able to tap into the servers of nine companies, including Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. Although the companies all say they have provided data only when ordered, the document suggests the NSA has unfettered access.
From a British perspective, the most worrying aspect of the revelations, however, is that the information gained by the NSA appears in turn to have been accessed by GCHQ, which generated 197 intelligence reports from Prism last year alone. David Cameron says GCHQ is operating legally, but intelligence officers are not allowed to view e-mails of British citizens without ministerial approval; if it has been getting information from the NSA, it appears to be exploiting a loophole.
We are all partly responsible for fostering a climate in which there is such disregard for due process; concerned with potential internet crimes, such as the grooming of young people or the dissemination of extremist Islamic material, we give the impression we want more, not less scrutiny, only to rebel when what is being scrutinised affects us personally. With that in mind, these revelations should serve as a warning as to what will happen if we fail to strike the right balance between preventing crime and protecting civil liberties. It should wake us to the need to oppose Cameron’s so-called snooper’s charter, which would require internet companies to store the data of all their British-based users for up to a year.
Whatever Snowden’s motives, rendition, drones and Prism are all hallmarks of a regime which is out of control. He has put his life on the line to open our eyes to a government that believes when it comes to waging the “war on terror”, the ends justify the means. And for that, at least, we should be grateful.
Twitter: @Dani Garavelli1