Almost a year after his name first surfaced in connection with the NSA leaks, Edward Snowden has finally been heard in an interview on American network television. It has not been an easy go. All that time, Snowden has been a man publicly reviled in near-Orwellian terms as someone putting American lives at risk and single-handedly destroying our ability to fight terrorism. Even afterwards, Secretary of State John Kerry, during a live interview on NBC’s TODAY show, made his position known: “Edward Snowden is a coward, he is a traitor, and he has betrayed his country.”
Yet Snowden was not what one would expect.
Edward Snowden, in his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, turned out to be a surprisingly level-headed, thoughtful, and soft-spoken young man – hardly a firebrand. And if he is to be believed, a true patriot acting in the highest interests of freedom and democracy. You can see it and judge for yourself here: “Inside the Mind of Edward Snowden“.
But what is he really, and what are the issues involved? According to NBC’s own polls, opinions on whether Snowden is a traitor or patriot are still about even. But the issues are deeper than just the legality and ethics of Internet monitoring by the state.
The questions reach down to the very bedrock of our values of privacy, freedom, and democracy. They don’t entirely hinge on the government’s secret activities either. The vast, indiscriminate, and totally unregulated collection of user data by giant service providers, retailers, and other online corporations is also a very large part of it.
For one thing, that data is all being acquired from them by the NSA, willingly provided or not. But also, by knowing our choices, these powers can predict them – and perhaps shape them, too. Google, for instance, orders users’ search results by their own preferences, both subtly cocooning and for all we know, redirecting them.
At least the public debate about these activities is finally beginning. Recently, The Guardian, the British newspaper which has taken the lead on Snowden’s disclosures, published a thoughtful article discussing the corrosive effects of surveillance and data-mining and how it all might be fixed. Called “Privacy under attack: the NSA files revealed new threats to democracy” it is a long, but highly recommended read for all cybercitizens.
The road home for Edward Snowden and the rest of us will be long and difficult because those with the keys to all this data will not willingly surrender them or limit their use. Many questions remain about the full purpose and range of the government’s surveillance. Other questions about the corporate powers that we have thoughtlessly surrendered so much of our online lives to have yet to be asked.
Yet, upon the answers may depend the shape of the Internet that is to come, and chances are, it will little resemble the World Wide Web of today. The very fact that the answers are so difficult to come by is a strong indicator that they may not be to our liking.
We certainly still do not have the full picture of the NSA’s activities – Glenn Greenwald, Snowden’s chief journalistic ally, has promised he is saving the best for last, and it should come out within a few weeks. This may just turn out to be a very long, hot summer.