Tonight, in a hotel room in Hong Kong, sits a very frightened young man who has just taken a decision that will affect the rest of his life. Edward Snowden is yet another whistle-blower seeing profound wrong in the system he grew up serving, and knowing that to right these wrongs risks his life. He is waiting for a knock on the door.
Snowden has revealed that the NSA (America’s largest intelligence agency) has, via a till-now secret program called ‘Prism’, for seven years or more been collecting records of all communications in and out of the US – Google, phone calls, photos, file transfers, stored data – everything. Given how much telecommunication traffic flows through the US on its way to and from it’s destination, this is a staggering amount of information. While previously you had to do something to attract the attention of the US intelligence community, now all you need to do is be here – they are collecting everything. And planning to keep it for 100 years, or more.
Having seen how Bradley Manning has been treated, Snowden is right to be afraid. Manning has been held for 3 years before his trial commenced, and is facing the full wrath of the state – life in prison (prosecutors recently ‘reduced’ their demand for the death penalty), without parole. Julian Assange, who merely published the information he was given, is holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy, fleeing trumped up charges in Sweden and a secret indictment in the US, that seek his extradition to what would certainly be life in prison. The Obama administration has used the 1917 Espionage Act twice as many times than all his predecessors combined. These actions constitute the gravest attack on whistle-blowers, free speech and the press in US history.
Edward Snowden knows the risks, and has still chosen to abandon a job paying $200k, his girlfriend and his family, who he may never see again, and fled to the other side of the world in order to reveal this information.
Why should this be a concern? After all, if you have nothing to hide, why be afraid. As Google’s Eric Schmidt once said – ‘if you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place’. To which I say – ever jerk off in the shower, Eric? Want that on the front page? Y’all without sin, well you can cast the first stone…
Here’s the problem. Senate hearings have already questioned Eric Holder, America’s leading law man – and he could only say that monitoring the email and internet communications of US Senators, up to and including the President, was not ‘the intention’ of the program. The intention. But if, ten years from now, a US presidential candidate considers running on a platform of reforming the NSA, what man or woman won’t have something that they don’t want on the front page of the newspaper. No presidential candidate will be allowed without the NSA’s blessing. Neither will an Australian or British prime-minister.
Ironically, technological advances mean that whistle-blowers can reveal exponentially more information than ever before. Daniel Ellsberg handed the New York Times around 6,000 sheets of paper in the ‘Pentagon Papers’ leak of 1971. Bradley Manning gave Wikileaks 750,000 documents, mostly on a digital storage card from his camera. Edward Snowden says he had the authority to wiretap anyone, including the President, and that he had access to the full roster of the NSA and under-cover assets over the entire world – names, addresses, everything. Had he released those, it would have been the biggest setback for US intelligence in history, armageddon for them. The NSA must fear that the next whistle-blower will do just that. And what their next action is in relation to that fear is potentially extremely frightening.
Think of the effect this is having on other potential whistle-blowers. These days, seeing illegal behaviour and reporting it means risking your life, and ruining it at the least.
History shows that when governmental spy agencies become more powerful than their governments, very bad things happen. Without whistle-blowers, free speech and a free press, democracy withers.
This affects all of us. As Moore’s law allows more and more storage of data, we are close to a time when every email, every phone call, every digital photo, everything you do is stored, regardless of how noble or dissolute your life is. We are all human – we all have things we have said and done which reveal our flaws. We would be nothing without these. Right now, the NSA is building a million square-foot data mining complex in Bluffdale, Utah. Soon, everything you write or say in your life will be stored there.
There is a word we use for what is happening here. It’s fascism. The power of the state in America is unprecedented. It’s the most overtly fascist force in the world since Nazi Germany. What the NSA is doing should frighten you. It concerns everyone. Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are brave and heroic men in a world gone mad. They deserve our support, as they are trying to stop the march of Orwellian totalitarianism. And yes, this concerns you.