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Why we should all take notice of Edward Snowden

Image: campact on Flickr

Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s far-reaching surveillance efforts become the story which dominated headlines worldwide for months = so how will that shape events in 2014? Here Annie Machon, who was an intelligence officer for the UK’s MI5 in the 1990s before leaving to help blow the whistle on the British spy agencies, assesses his impact on our world.

I’m with W B Yeats on this one - trying to “bring the balloon of the mind that bellies and drags in the wind into its narrow shed”. Where on earth should one start with the biggest whistleblowing story in modern history?

The Edward Snowden saga is riveting for me on so many levels, including the personal going on-the-run aspect. Unless you have been living in a cave for the last year, you will know he is the brave young NSA contractor who has blown the whistle on a range of global surveillance programmes that, particularly, the Americans and the Brits have developed over the last few years to ‘fight the war on terrorism’ or spy on over half the world’s population.

The sheer scale of his disclosures so far is incredible and has huge implications for what remains of our democratic way of life. Yet it is estimated that only 1% of his documents has so far been released.

Pundits have been calling him the most significant whistleblower since Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam war 40 years ago. But I would go further.

In my view Edward Snowden is the most significant whistleblower in modern history because, while Ellsberg disclosed vital information, it was largely a matter that affected the Americans and the hapless Vietnamese. What Snowden has exposed, just to date, impacts on potentially all of us around the world.

Why? Well, Snowden has confirmed the darkest fears of legal experts, geeks, hackivists and concerned global citizens about the sheer scale of the surveillance society we all now live under. Not only are our intelligence agencies operating way beyond national laws, they do so using the infrastructure of the global internet mega corps. What he has laid bare is the fact that we are all already living under full-blown corporatism, to quote Benito Mussolini’s definition of fascism.

Despite the tired old justifications of the burgeoning military-intelligence complex - “we’re doing this to protect you all from the evil terrorists” - it has become apparent that rampant spy mission creep has set in. The global surveillance infrastructure targets friendly heads of state, international corporations, activists, you name it. The spies are running amok and trampling our hard-won historic liberties and rights.

Snowden’s disclosures have rocked governments and will change laws at both national and international levels. Snowden himself recently said that he had already achieved what he had set out to do - spark the debate and allow we, the people, to reassess the boundaries of privacy in society, rather than leaving the issue in the hands of uber-secret and unaccountable spies. In fact, he said as much in his alternative Christmas address on Channel 4 TV.

While I whole heartedly concur, I would add that without free media - which includes the internet obviously - where we can all read, write, watch, listen, discuss, plan and associate freely and with privacy, we are all living in an Orwellian dystopia, and we are all potentially at risk of the 21st century equivalent of the Nazi book burnings. Our media must be based on technologies that empower individual citizens, not corporations or foreign governments. The Free Software Foundation has been making these recommendations for over two decades.

And let us not forget that the was enshrined in 1948, in the immediate aftermath and horrors of the Second World War, precisely to try to avoid the possible evolution and future abuses of totalitarian regimes. However, perhaps we are now reaching the end game of this utopian idea of basic freedoms.

Why would I say that? Well, there was a news item over Christmas week about a royal pardon granted to Alan Turing.

Alan Turing is widely acknowledged to be the father of modern computing and the man who saved millions of lives during World War 2 with his work at Bletchley Park cracking the German Enigma code machines. After the war, he went on to work for GCHQ, the UK’s electronic listening post that has achieved such notoriety because of Snowden’s disclosures throughout 2013.

As well as a genius, Turing also happened to be gay. Homosexuality was then in the UK deemed to be a crime and he was subsequently shamed, sacked from GCHQ and made legally to submit to chemical castration for an “act of gross indecency” as the law then deemed any consensual homosexual acts in the UK. As a result he took his own life in 1954.

In addition to the personal tragedy, we shall never know what future contributions this genius could have made to the country, so it is the world’s loss too. As is the break-up of the first computers built at Bletchley Park, “in the interests of national security”…..

In my view it is right that he (plus all the other men who had their lives blighted during those decades by acquiring a criminal record for their sexual orientation) should be pardoned. But his tragic case highlights how the law is always playing catch-up. Sixty years ago homosexual acts were illegal. Now in the UK we have gay marriage rights.

His work, during World War Two, accelerated the end of the war and saved potentially countless millions of lives plus the notion of western freedoms, rights and democracy. His work was, yes, carried out in secret, because Britain was at the time facing an obvious existential threat.

But how would he have reacted to the over-weaning surveillance state that has electronically evolved since, to protect us from a nebulous and increasingly overblown threat of “terrorism”? Especially if he could have seen how such capabilities could have invaded our private lives?

Sure, when such rare attacks happen, they are terrible and painful crimes, but they do not constitute an existential threat.

So what is the analogy I am trying to draw here? In Turing’s era the UN Declaration had just been announced but had yet to be successfully used to protect the consensual personal choices of individuals in their private lives. The law has ameliorated since then, at least on the level of individual sexual preference.

Yet now, we are seeing our 21st century computer genius, Edward Snowden, being persecuted for trying to expose how a global surveillance infrastructure has evolved without our knowledge and without our informed consent. He is not the first, many other whistleblowers have emerged from the NSA over the last decade, and many have been threatened with prosecution and decades of imprisonment under the US Espionage Act 1917.

Yet Snowden’s case seems to be a neat book-end to the wonderful sixty-year experiment that was universal human rights. Then, at the start, Turing suffered persecution for his private life. Now, at the end, whistleblowers are suffering persecution for their public sacrifice. As Snowden so succinctly said: “If I defected at all, I defected from the government to the public.”

We are at a pivotal moment of human development - if we continue to allow global mega-corporations and governments to erode our privacy, we lose our freedoms for ever. That’s it, the end game and enduring totalitarianism.

Edward Snowden has made a huge personal sacrifice to provide us with the proof of this looming danger, and he deserves both honour and gratitude. I hope it will not take sixty years this time to lead to meaningful reforms and recognition, for his and all our sakes.

Social norms rightly continue to shift and evolve, and we need them to do so to match and mirror the technological developments that change our world and the life experiences and expectations of the digital natives following us.

What we are seeing with the recent intelligence whistleblowers and the justice and transparency efforts of high-tech publishing organisations such as Wikileaks is a growing democratisation of information. This, I hope, will lead to a world that more of us might recognise as just.

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