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The fiery Snowden debate

Jim Willis Published: July 1, 2013

Last year, when the loud thud heard in Washington was the sound of the PIPA and SOPA proposals hitting the dusty shelf, many in the Internet community of netizens breathed a loud sigh of relief.

The culture of openness on the Web would remain intact, and people would be allowed to find information, unfettered by any filters or firewalls.

A TV screen shows the news of Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping U.S. surveillance programs, in the underground train in Hong Kong Sunday, June 16, 2013. Top U.S. intelligence officials said Saturday that information gleaned from two controversial data-collection programs run by the National Security Agency thwarted potential terrorist plots in the U.S. and more than 20 other countries — and that gathered data is destroyed every five years.  (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
A TV screen shows the news of Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping U.S. surveillance programs, in the underground train in Hong Kong Sunday, June 16, 2013. Top U.S. intelligence officials said Saturday that information gleaned from two controversial data-collection programs run by the National Security Agency thwarted potential terrorist plots in the U.S. and more than 20 other countries — and that gathered data is destroyed every five years. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Intent vs. cure

While the intent of those proposals seemed good (stopping the international piracy of copyrighted material on the Web), the fencing-off of online information made the cure seem worse than the illness. The protests were loud, widespread, and immediate.

The argument went: If you can’t have an open Internet where information is open to all, what good is the Internet in the first place?

So the two congressional proposals were withdrawn early in 2012 “for further review” even more quickly than they had been introduced.

Say what?

What we didn’t know, of course, is just how open the Internet is and how easy it is for the federal government to tap into our e-mails and social media posts, and to develop profiles of us based on our Internet usage.

Or should I say we knew the capabilities for all that existed, but wrongly believed the permission did not.

That, of course, was before we learned about the NSA program called PRISM, which is part of what American fugitive/refugee Edward Snowden revealed when he leaked classified information to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

A key program

In one of Snowden’s leaked documents, PRISM was listed as “the number one source of raw intelligence used for NSA analytic reports.” It differs from the surveillance program used to track cell phone calls, because it stores and tracks information people exchange on the Internet

While government officials dispute some of the reported details of the program, no one is denying that PRISM exists, and has existed for at least six years. Former President George Bush affirmed that Monday in a CNN interview in Zambia. He said he put PRISM in place in 2007 to protect the country. It has been operational under President Obama since that time.

A renewed blaze

The revelations about the NSA surveillance programs have thrown gasoline on the embers of the fiery debate about individual privacy and the needs of a country to gather intelligence to thwart terrorism.  That debate, sparked in 2001 by the Patriot Act, had died down in recent years, but the blaze is now hotter than ever.

In the midst of it all, of course, stands Snowden who is apparently stranded in the international transit lounge of the Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. As of today, his future remains uncertain, although obviously the U.S. wants him back since he has been accused of high crimes.

Traitor or hero?

What is certain, and will be for some time to come, is whether Snowden is seen as a traitor or a hero. The response depends on your point of view about what Snowden did and what the leaked information says about what the NSA has been doing. There’s also that pesky issue of the law itself: the one he apparently broke.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to staff of Embassy New Delhi in New Delhi, India on Tuesday, June 25, 2013, before heading to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for a day visit and then on to Kuwait, continuing his Middle East tour. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to staff of Embassy New Delhi in New Delhi, India on Tuesday, June 25, 2013, before heading to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for a day visit and then on to Kuwait, continuing his Middle East tour. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

An opinion piece on CNN.com today looked at “Why we’re all stuck in the digital transit zone with Snowden.” Written by Andrew Keen, it posits the following:

“Yes, Sheremetyevo (Airport) is beginning to mirror the Internet, a vast all-seeing digital panopticon, a network in which somebody might be watching everything we do, a place where individual privacy no longer exists. And Snowden’s fate — of being watched around the clock, of having zero privacy — could easily become all of our fates.”

The plot thickens

He gets more specific in his opinions, adding:

“By being able to read our emails and Internet usage, by harvesting over a trillion metadata records, the NSA knows absolutely everything about us. They know our tastes, what we think, where we go, what we eat, how we sleep, when we are angry, when we are sad. They have become our eyes and our brains. Hitchcock’s 20th century movie about surveillance and voyeurism really has become the truth about 21st century digital life.”

Too much?

Opponents would say this is just a bit much. Both presidents Bush and Obama have gone on record as stating that safeguards are in place to protect individual American privacy, although the specifics on those safeguards is sketchy.  They say the programs harvest more metadata than actual data. But it’s hard to get detail when you’re talking about information that is supposed to be classified in the first place.

The other reality

Into this debate must, of course, come the reality of how loud the public’s clamor becomes when a terrorist incident does occur that costs American lives. Then the question directed at the government is, “Why didn’t you know about this threat and stop it from happening?”

No easy way out

There is no easy resolution to this debate. The ultimate question is always what price is a nation willing to pay for a feeling of safety, and does that price become too high if it threatens the value of individual privacy?

That, by the way, is a value many social media addicts seem to be giving up willingly by self-disclosing so much revealing information about themselves online in the first place.

Maybe the difference is that, in doing so, leaking that information about themselves is their own idea.


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