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July 15, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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Weekly Rant – Freedom Fighters

The world has been captivated and polarised by Edward Snowden, a computer analyst who has reignited the debate surrounding freedom. He is responsible for the public disclosure of a series of documents pertaining to illegal surveillance by the United States. The contents of the leak confirmed the already half-acknowledged fact that governments were engaged in mass electronic surveillance of their citizenry.

This unabashed assault on privacy is problematic in two respects. Firstly, isn’t it a little too reminiscent of the Orwellian police state in Nineteen Eighty-Four? As our lives are becoming increasingly electronic, they also become increasingly open to surveillance. This is not a new idea, yet for most of us there was still a perception of privacy; passwords, private messaging functions, and security options all exist to preserve some online intimacy. What is most troubling about the actions of the NSA and CIA is that incrimination has become circumstantial: you don’t actually have to do anything wrong. As Snowden said in an interview with The Guardian:

“You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they could use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.”

Where does freedom exist in this arrangement? It is insultingly pushed aside by surveillance in the name of counter-terrorism. When suspicion can be grounds for arrest, one is no longer free. The Soviet Union under Stalin, heavily criticised by the West, was a compelling example of this. It is suggested that a culture of self-censorship developed among citizens in the Soviet Union, due to paranoia and fear of excessive surveillance. This is problematic, as people who are constantly surveilled become decidedly limited in their autonomy, which I think we can acknowledge as a bad thing. Yet more troubling is the hypocrisy of the US in their reaction to the leaks by Snowden.

The current assault on privacy is bad in its second respect when we consider the US reaction. They have engaged in an international witch-hunt of Snowden, that seems to epitomise a new and sinister approach to freedom. Snowden was right when he said “Their purpose is to frighten, not me, but those who would come after me.” Over the past decade there has been unprecedented persecution of whistleblowers by the US. One of the more notable cases is that of Bradley Manning, a soldier who leaked classified information pertaining to US war crimes in Iraq. The corresponding reaction was to prosecute Manning to the full extent of the law, in that he now faces up to 20 years in prison. Therefore the recent revelations, that the US is and has for a while been engaged in illegal surveillance of its citizens, have come with the inevitable backlash against the leaker. Snowden now faces charges of treason, with a potential 30 years in prison. This hypothetical ‘burning at the stake’, of Snowden and other whistleblowers, is a political move to silence those who criticise the actions of the state. Worryingly, it seems as though the US has adopted a ‘snitches-get-stitches’ approach to political dissidents, as Snowden is the eighth leaker to be charged under the Espionage Act in the last decade. When faced with the exposure of an illegitimate and unconstitutional spying programme, the reaction is to condemn the man behind the exposé as a traitor and a spy himself. Rather than using this leak as an opportunity to open up the debate surrounding privacy in the appropriate public channels, they have shrunk back behind their wall of distrust. It is in the US reaction that one gets a glimpse of a malicious and paranoid police state, and this is deeply unsettling.

So where does this leave us? Snowden heroically confirmed the extent of government spying, yet he now faces 30 years in prison. However, his martyrdom is not in vain, as he has reignited the debate over freedom in the electronic age. It is from the seeds of his dissent that we are even discussing surveillance right now. Political dissent is of utmost importance to a free society, as Snowden has demonstrated. Yet it is being smothered by surveillance. So before the flames Snowden has ignited are extinguished, let us seriously consider the implications of excessive state surveillance.

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