Edward Snowden is an NSA (National Security Agency) whistle-blower who has America, and indeed the world, divided on some rather thorny issues. These include what’s done in the name of national security, moral obligations, and the right to privacy.
Snowden’s whistle-blowing, however, has been clouded by his somewhat ill-fated quest for political asylum. Public interviews and his personal plight have overshadowed the real issues. The attention-deficient public appear to be completely distracted with the soap opera elements of the story: will Snowden be embraced by Venezuela, or some other country willing to spit in America’s face? What about Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills: is she sympathetic towards his cause, and more importantly, is she cute?
The real issues affect more than just the Americans, Snowden and his girlfriend. They affect us all in a fundamental way:
Right to Privacy
Since 9/11, the American government has happily ridden on the coat-tails of public paranoia. Citizens there have surrendered many of their rights with the likes of the Patriot Act. What Snowden exposed, however, was the extent of mass domestic surveillance that is actually taking place. Do you believe it is right for government to be able to snoop through your personal email, Facebook posts and tweets? Is it ok for companies like Google to deliver your personal information on a platter to an agency like the one Snowden worked for?
While the first issue could easily position Snowden as a hero for exposing the truth, the issue of gambling with national security is proving to do quite the opposite. In his leaks, Snowden disclosed some spy intelligence which, while not life-threatening to anyone, was certainly important enough to embarrass his government and fellow citizens. No doubt disclosing state secrets isn’t going to make for a happy future for Snowden, but was he right to make America’s espionage dealings more transparent?
Bad government behaviour
The answer to the above might be an obvious no from most Americans, but to many in the rest of the world, it serves to take America, with its perceived arrogant holier than thou attitude, down a few notches. Naturally, it’s deemed nasty when the Chinese hack into American computers, but Snowden has exposed the American government to be none the better. And spying on allies at the likes of the last G20 conference hardly inspires global confidence in America’s motives.
For Wonkie, the final issue is the most interesting one as it’s a personal one that most of us will face in some form or another. What does one do if one believes that something is wrong? Does one act, or ignore it? The argument that it depends on whether the decision to act affects others or not is a rubbish one. If the matter is of any consequence, then the decision to act itself, whether made or not, will inevitably be of consequence.
The question is, should one follow through on one’s convictions? To simply answer “yes, but only if it’s legal” is rather naive. Some of the biggest changes in history arrived through illegal actions against an established system. Consider the Arab Spring, as just one such recent example.
Governments do an excellent job of personalising the attack on whistle-blowers. This effectively takes the real issues off the table and redirects the attention of the dumb public to sensationalist headlines. Hence, as in this case, the issue becomes one of whether dear Ed should have done what he did, rather than about the question of whether the American government has been very naughty.
The truth is, there is a fair bit of cognitive dissonance in play here. It’s not like Americans didn’t know that they were being snooped on by their own government before Snowden, or that their country is doing just as dodgy things as any of their friends on the axis of evil. They just didn’t want to acknowledge it, and Snowden has forced their hand. In the end, Wonkie believes all this will turn out to be no more than one more inconvenient truth that will be ignored. Nothing will change, and unfortunately, the only real victim will wind up being Edward Snowden.
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Other articles on Privacy and Freedom of Speech:
- Free Press in South Africa
- SABC and freedom of speech in South Africa
- Protection of Information Bill – Dummies Guide to Corruption
- Secrecy Bill approved in South Africa