Let me be your Big Brother. Freedom in the time of Edward Snowden – part 3

(Part 3)

When Edward Snowden, the whistleblower behind the Global surveillance system scandal, opened Pandora’s box, the truth about the hugest violation of the right to privacy escaped. According to Snowden, the surveillance activities were “intent on making every conversation and every form of behaviour in the world known to them”. He described how he once viewed the internet as “the most important invention in all of human history”. As an adolescent, he spent days at a time “speaking to people with all sorts of views that I would never have encountered on my own”. But he believed that the value of the internet, along with basic privacy, is being rapidly destroyed by ubiquitous surveillance. “I don’t see myself as a hero,” he said, “because what I’m doing is self-interested: I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity”[1].

Edward Snowden’s statement is remarkable because he mentioned the importance of internet and creativity as products of freedom. Internet represents a revolution, as relevant as the industrial revolutions. It changed the world.

Greater interconnection, easier communication, and the exposure of information that in the past could have more easily been suppressed by totalitarian regimes. The Revolutions of 2011 were enabled by social networking and smartphone technology.  Privacy in general became a concern during the internet revolution. The ability to store and use such large amounts of information opened possibilities for tracking of individual activities and interests. The ability to easily and rapidly share information on a global scale led to a whole new level of freedom of speech. Individuals and organizations were suddenly given the ability to publish on any topic, to a global audience, at a negligible cost, particularly in comparison to any previous communication technology. 

Nevertheless, the introduction of new technology brought with it many potential opportunities for exploitation. Mass surveillance operation is just one of the drawbacks in the era of internet. That operation represents a threat for any form expression and creativity because affects the right to privacy, conceived as a branch of the freedom tree. Privacy involves the existence of an intimate place, both material and spiritual, where one can cultivate passions, interests, skills. Secret mass surveillance is really dangerous for freedom, not because it pressures people to act in compliance with either a legal code or a moral one, but since it makes them subject to blackmail.

Actually, this issue led to the opening of a rather heated debate between those who argue that if one has got nothing to hide, one has got nothing to fear, and those who oppose that argument, which appears quite intimidating. Indeed, a government can leak information about a person and cause damage to that person, even though he or she did not do anything illegal, by deforming that person’s image and spoiling her or his reputation.

In the wealthy western society, people are at the same time masters of and slaves to technology. But technology is only a tool. It transformed people in active and passive subjects of information. That tool has been exploited by the governments and intelligence agencies to increase their power. Then, Edward Snowden gave people the opportunity to act. In other words, he tried to counterbalance the relationship between ruler and ruled. Now, people have to overcome the “bogeyman” terrorism and choose between freedom and control, bearing in mind that “Privacy matters, privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be”[2].




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[1] Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras, “Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations” in the Guardian, 9/06/2013.

[2] Snowden’s Christmas message, http://www.channel4.com/programmes/alternative-christmas-message/4od., through http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/26/world/europe/snowden-christmas-message-privacy.html?_r=0