Edward Snowden — the National Security Agency subcontractor who in 2013 leaked classified information about NSA surveillance activities — has reemerged as a central talking point in national news. His ascendance back into the news cycle coincides with the release of the film Snowden and a recent campaign by human rights groups urging President Barack Obama to pardon Snowden. In response, Congressional lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee unanimously signed a letter on Sept. 15 addressed to Obama, entreating him to disregard this campaign. The perennial debate remains: Is Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor?
The question is a false bifurcation more invested in distracting drama than a nuanced conversation about government transparency and privacy in the digital age. For young people, specifically college-age students, the extent to which one can preserve a secure online identity should be a personal query of absolute importance. Our social media profiles have become depositories for the most intimate and seemingly banal details of our lives — where we work and study, what we like, who we speak to and when we are actually socializing. All of our activity on the Internet — from Facebook interactions to shopping on Amazon and selecting a series on Netflix — is being quietly and invisibly used to survey, manipulate and shape our preferences.
We mostly meet the intrusion of greater human and artificial intelligence into our daily lives with an air of indifference. For many, the acceptance of this reality corresponds with the internalization of a narrative that tells us that we must be willing to forfeit more of our privacy for national security. According to one poll conducted in 2013, six in 10 Americans indicated that they disapproved of the federal government collecting their phone records in order to combat terrorism. However, about 75 percent of the people surveyed said they approved of the government tracking the phone records of Americans suspected of terrorism. About the same number of people also said they approved of the government analyzing the web activity of people living in foreign states. Today, those six in 10 Americans seem to have disappeared into obscurity, as we continue to grapple with the same questions three years later.
No evidence suggests that the NSA’s watchful eye makes us any safer. Instead, investigations into the effectiveness of these programs reveal that the intel collected from Americans’ metadata is negligible. In the wake of Snowden’s revelations, the former NSA Director, Gen. Keith Alexander, claimed in June 2013 that the agency, under his leadership, disrupted 54 terrorist plots. By October, he reduced the number of foiled plots to “one or two.” We do, however, know of all the attacks the NSA failed to prevent: the Boston bombings, the San Bernardino attack, the Orlando shooting and now, it appears, the Minnesota stabbing and New York bombings. In the case of the Boston bombings, one of the terrorists was on the FBI watchlist, and the other left a trail of warnings on social media.
Mass surveillance programs collecting the metadata of millions of Americans are ineffective counterterrorism measures. They are ineffective not only because of their inability to prevent the atrocities we have seen in the last three years; but also because of their exorbitant cost. The cost of these programs is not purely calculated in dollar signs. There are the diplomatic costs, as countries learn more about U.S. surveillance of their citizens. There are the social costs, as American citizens remain largely in the dark about what the government does with their personal information, without sufficient oversight from Congress or an accessible forum to challenge this intrusion. And, finally, there are the costs to our technical systems, which have become increasingly vulnerable to abuse from other states.
The more the United States decides to surveil its citizens on the internet and other forms of communication technology, the more susceptible the country becomes to interference from other states. Creating a guarded digital world will require greater transparency from government agencies, a commitment among global leaders to a secure World Wide Web, and broader laws that can keep up with the rate at which technology is evolving. These laws will require new enforcement technologies and an international regime that can effectively subdue bad actors across a range of global issues: weapon non-proliferation, human trafficking and illicit trade. In summary, we must abandon the conflation of security and surveillance, and instead adopt a new paradigm that prioritizes transparency, the rule of law and coalition-building.
Bailee Ahern is a senior majoring in political science and international relations. “’Lend a Hand” runs every Monday.