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Why This Man Deserves Your Respect and Careful Attention.
When I first read about the leak of privileged information from the stronghold of the USA’s ubersecret National Security Agency (NSA) by a 29-year-old systems administrator, I was shocked. Not by the information itself – relating to intelligence agencies tapping and storing enormous amounts of phone data illegally – but by the man who released it.
Edward Snowden is a former systems analyst with sandy-blond hair and a quiet manner who has just blown the lid off institutional privacy abuses that the world will be talking about for years. Or, at least, I hope they will, because at just shy of thirty, this guy has flushed his career and put his life on the line to protect the rights of US citizens. Since Monday he has reportedly fled his hotel room in Hong Kong, his safe haven since leaving the US. The government of Hong Kong has cited bilateral agreements with the United States as a reason that the whistleblower may not be as safe in the Chinese protectorate as he had hoped.
The first time I watched Edward Snowden’s interview with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, I was stunned by the calm gravity of his manner. He speaks calmly and quietly about the duty of government to put decisions about privacy in the hands of the people, and about his decision to share his identity rather than attempting to leak the information anonymously. He outlines the possible reprisals for his actions, including the possibility of forced CIA rendition or a covert hit, and goes on to speak about the powers of an employee of the NSA to exploit the growing technological capabilities of surveillance systems to restrict the freedoms so central to the tenets of American political philosophy.
Since then, I’ve returned to that video many times, wondering if I would be capable of that kind of courage, should a similar situation arise in which my personal comfort or my safety clashed with my civic obligations. It comes as little surprise that these rapidly advancing technologies are being exploited through under-regulation, nor that those in the know have been reluctant to speak out for fear of reprisals. But the lack of public engagement in protecting their own rights is disturbing. The US Department of Justice has begun to investigate possible criminal charges against Snowden, who has reportedly sought asylum in Iceland. The man who courageously stood up to protect the rights of the regular citizen is now on the run from his own government. For fulfilling what he believed to be his civic duty at the expense of personal gain. These are qualities that we as a culture need, profess to want, and when they are threatened I believe we have a personal responsibility to defend them.
I don’t live in the USA, but this kind of Machiavellian manipulation by government affects me. It affects you. Wherever you are reading this, it is your problem, because what becomes normal in the USA, the great global power of our age, sooner or later spreads out to engulf the rest of us. Public passivity on breaches of this magnitude sends a message to everybody’s governments that the privacy of individual citizens is a flexible concept, open to subversion without supervision. In a global political climate that is beginning to resemble science fiction, open conversation about surveillance and the technical capabilities of covert government organisations are long overdue.
Edward Snowden saw injustice, and spoke about it. We now need to do the same to protect him from the reprisals of an angry superpower. We have a civic duty to watch this story and to ask questions, loudly, about why he needs to flee his government. For me, the Prism leak boils down to this: do I want to live in the kind of world that punishes people for speaking out in the common good? Do you?
By Kirani Carlin