Yesterday Rahul Sagar, author of the forthcoming Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, offered his thoughts on Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the benefit and dangers of whistleblowing. Today, Gabriella Coleman, author of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking joins us to respond to Professor Sagar’s view, offer her take on the impassioned debate surrounding Snowden’s actions, and the media’s allegations of narcissism. (Also, catch Professor Coleman today on Huffington Post Live discussing whether the FBI has ‘dismantled’ the hacker collective Anonymous.)
Out of all the charges lobbed against Edward Snowden I find the lay diagnosis of his “narcissism” to be the most puzzling and spurious. How exactly is risking your life—by which I mean life in jail—an instance of a narcissistic temperament? Even though he went public, partly for self-protection, he has kept his interactions with the media to a bare minimum, clearly not seeking more undue attention. Given the lack of evidence of this pathology, labeling him as such strikes as a character assassination meant to detract from the more pressing issues his actions have raised.
If we contextualize what he did, not in terms of personality but in light of the contemporary historical moment, what we see without a shadow of a doubt is that Edward Snowden is not alone. He is part of a growing cohort of individuals who have for years diagnosed the explosive rise of state secrecy and surveillance as enough of a problem that they are willing to take on personal risk to impel debate and change. What is most notable is that this cohort is composed of insiders (William Binney, Thomas Drake, Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning) and outsiders (Julian Assange, Barrett Brown, and James Bamford). The fact that there is a chorus is significant.
The public should perhaps be more skeptical if it were only one person or only the Julian Assanges’ of the world—long time activists who have always sat outside the state apparatus —who were crying foul. That we have investigative journalists, military personnel, employees from security agencies, and activists join the fray signals the extent of the problem; there are different unconnected individuals from distinct walks of life coming forward identifying similar problems.
This brings us to the shores of the second issue: the sanctity of the law. What I think is clear by now is that the revealed programs violate aspects of the law in both the spirit and the letter. Lawyers have recently put it in no uncertain terms: “The two programs violate both the letter and the spirit of federal law. No statute explicitly authorizes mass surveillance.” In an ideal world we would simply use legal mechanisms to eliminate bad laws or fight grave injustices. Critics should walk down this path before law-breaking. This is exactly what happened in this case. Since the inception of the Patriot Act, which was passed under a time of great national duress and fear, we have seen various attempts by civil liberties organizations to curtail efforts at the vast enterprise that is unwarranted, warantless wiretapping using the law. One lawsuit first brought forward by the EFF and ACLU in 2006 against AT&T was not only drawn out, it was ultimately stonewalled by a dubious law that granted telecoms who cooperated with the government with retroactive immunity. The law has been tampered with to such an extent to have rendered using it in this case useless.
Along with legal efforts, individuals have also used available channels at their disposal to effect change but to no avail. We have to look no further than Thomas Drake, a long time NSA employee who grew uneasy with the violations he witnessed first hand. His first actions were reform based. He went to his superiors with his concerns and was told to stop. He went to the press with unclassified information for which he payed dearly being the subject of a DOJ investigation, eventually dropped but not before his career had been ruined.
The only actions to have engendered substantive debate and faint wisps of change have been Snowden’s leaks. Why? Foremost is that there is no fabled majority who support surveillance.
When news about Prism first broke and polls were taken, only 56% were in favor of state surveillance and the polls failed to mention Americans were targeted. Even then, how it is a number which represents a mere half of a country can be cast as a majority? It can’t. This issue is
unsettled. Further, as more damning allegations have come out, numbers have shifted, and more Americans are in opposition to current programs, especially when the question reflects the fact that American’s digital lives are being captured and stored.
Snowden’s reasons for revealing information cannot be simply reduced to “secrets should not be kept.” His statements about why he did what he did, and the documents that he leaked have shown a much more complicated rationale that cannot be omitted from our analysis. What Snowden did was open the spigot so valuable information could flow to a thirsty public who holds the right to know. Only then, can the public move to a realistic assessment about what course of action to take with a government agency, which currently holds limitless powers for surveillance and who actively withheld information and lied to Congress about its actions.
The type of impassioned debate generated by Snowden and the fervent coalition building and advocacy which has cropped up to press for change in the wake of these revelations and not blind respect for dubious laws, represents the living pulse of democracy. We are indebted to Snowden to have opened the gates. It is now up to us to finish the job.