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Whistleblowers rarely come in more divisive form than Edward Snowden. For one set of people he is a staunch protector of freedom and civil liberties; for others he is a villain intent on endangering the lives of countless individuals.
The argument of the latter collective revolves around the possibility that some (or most) of the information leaked by Snowden is a threat to the national security of the US. The Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) classified damage assessment describes damage to US intelligence capabilities as “grave.” With the revelation that this data is also shared with many allies of the US and that GCHQ, the British equivalent of the National Security Agency (NSA), has involved itself in this type of activity, questions of international security have also been raised. Both Barack Obama and David Cameron have criticised the actions of Snowden as jeopardising the fight against global terrorism.
However, as much as this argument might garner support from those members of the establishment or the public who are excessively concerned with national and international security, the protection of the individual is sadly neglected when adopting this position. Indeed, Snowden is drawing attention to the plight of democracy and freedom in the digital age – he has labelled himself as far more troubled by matters of “transparency” than security. The fact that no evidence has been found to suggest that Snowden made the leaked documents directly available to any foreign powers implies that a desire to enliven public debate regarding surveillance was his driving motivation, rather than an insidious will to destruction.
The moral implications of such an inflated level of snooping are indeed “staggering”, though debate across the Atlantic seems to have been more pyrotechnic than our own tepid dialogue. This may be due to the constitutional ramifications that surround subjects such as privacy and freedom in the US, as well as the fact that they conceive of themselves as global leaders in the war on terror. Whilst it is true that Snowden’s revelations have ignited a spark in British inclination to discuss such topics, our lack of fire in comparison to our cousins across the pond is more alarming given that – according to the Guardian – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) of 2000, the British law “used to sanction much of GCHQ’s activity, has been left behind by advances in technology.”
The word “terrorism” has a weighted symbolic and ideological significance, and is often bandied about by politicians who wish to bring to an end a debate by sheer force of language. The amount of evidence amassed by Snowden has managed to sustain discussion even after the jarring use of this term; however, it continues to be the case that the majority of the public – certainly the UK public – feels uneasy when choosing sides. This is especially evident when the easy route out of such an ethical dilemma can be found by use of the dictum: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” This is the staple justification for the mass collection of data, and appears to be the thing to which a lot of us cling when faced with such a problematic question.
It appears to me that we should be far more engaged with this issue. A Guardian article published in January of this year warned that a “huge swathe” of GCHQ surveillance is illegal. The merging of the public and the private, which has resulted from the innovations of social technology in recent years, requires an open and ongoing dialogue about what rights governments have to access our information. Is the collection of data acceptable if it is simply “metadata” (phone records rather than actual conversations)?
Should companies such as Yahoo and Facebook be given a legal right to refuse requests for information from organisations such as the NSA? Do security agencies have the right to collect my information if such a policy means it is supposedly easier for them to catch criminals? These are all questions which need serious consideration if we care about the direction of democracy in the 21st century.