Last weekend, after 29 year-old government contractor Edward Snowden revealed himself to be the source of several major U.S. intelligence leaks, most people regarded him as a hero.
Snowden, most people agreed, had revealed outrageous, illegal privacy abuses by the U.S. government spying machine. Revealing these secrets was a patriotic act, people said. Snowden might have broken some laws, but he had America’s best interests at heart. Americans should be grateful.
A few days later, however, Snowden’s motives seem less pure. And his characterizations of U.S. intelligence activities seem less accurate, more personal, and more naive.
- Snowden told the Washington Post and Guardian that the U.S. government had direct access to the central servers of Google, Facebook, and other global Internet companies and said this surveillance capability was so powerful that the government could watch your thoughts form as you type. This claim appears to have been wrong.
- Snowden said that he, a 29 year-old contractor, had the authority to wiretap anyone in the U.S. from his desktop, including you, your accountant, a federal judge, or the President. This claim seemed far-fetched, and a senior government official has since disputed it. (This doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it still seems like an exaggeration.)
- Some NSA behaviour that Snowden has characterised as illegal and evil appears to serve a legitimate purpose: Protecting the United States and American citizens. Snowden himself may think we worry too much about terrorism, and Snowden himself may prefer to give up some security for more privacy, but it’s not clear that the average American agrees with his personal balance on this. And this is likely even more true when Americans understand how data like phone records can be used to protect America without abusing individual privacy rights.
- Snowden gave an interview and documents to the South China Morning Post revealing that the U.S. had repeatedly hacked Chinese computers. Assuming Snowden is right about the hacks, it’s probably healthy for Americans to learn that their government’s holier-than-thou complaints about China’s own cyber-espionage are hypocritical. But this revelation put the U.S. even more on the defensive with respect to China, which theretofore had been regarded as the king of abusive hacking. And if Snowden’s goal really is to help the United States, and not to suck up to China for amnesty, unveiling this news in a Hong Kong newspaper seems a strange way to go about it.
Today, the South China Morning Post reported that China is now going to evaluate whether Snowden can be an asset to China’s national security… or whether he would be a liability. Then, the report continues, Beijing will decide whether or not to extradite him.
While making this decision, experts predict, China will attempt to pump Snowden to determine everything he knows.
This interrogation will put Snowden in an interesting position, one that will reveal more about his motives and intent.
If Snowden willingly tells China everything he knows about U.S. intelligence efforts, especially with respect to China, this American, at least, will conclude that Snowden does not actually have America’s best interests at heart. This American will also conclude that Snowden is either clueless about the Chinese government’s own reputation for snooping on and prosecuting its citizens, or is motivated by something other than not wanting to live in a society in which the government keeps a record of everyone’s phone calls.Ultimately, of course, the debate in America should not be about Snowden himself but about the activities of our government–specifically, whether our intelligence efforts have gone too far and whether we should add more checks and balances to them.
I have been persuaded of the latter. I think the U.S. Congress should add the same oversight and transparency to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act actions as it does to normal U.S. legal proceedings. I think these checks and balances will keep the government more honest and give innocent people more opportunity to defend themselves from any abuses or mistakes that occur.
I am not yet persuaded, however, that U.S. intelligence efforts have gone too far. I understand the concerns about them, but I also now understand better what the government is trying to do with the data it collects, as well as how it is legally able to use this information. I am not blase about the risks that go along with this, which is why I would like to see more transparency and more checks and balances. But I’m not ready to denounce the government for building a database of phone records and using it in carefully restricted ways.
(I know less about the government’s collection and use of Internet data, and I would certainly like to know more about that. That’s one reason I am willing to trade away a bit of security to have the National Security Agency operate more transparently.)
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