This morning I watched Edward Snowden address a Ted audience via a sort of Tandberg-on-wheels telecom robot. He’s the most eloquent advocate for his choices I’ve heard. What he says makes sense to me. Has he damaged the security of the United States? It’s possible his actions have endangered a few agents around the world, but I doubt seriously the US is less secure from terrorism than before Ed let the cat out of the bag. Without a doubt, he has increased global awareness as to the extent of the National Security Agency’s data-mining efforts and exposed some of the NSA’s lies. (What, a spy agency lying?) My own opinion on the Snowden affair continues to take shape, but at this moment I’m leaning toward thinking of Snowden as a man of conscience who exposed a vast, unregulated violation of the privacy of much of the human race. Having worked for a government agency for more than twenty years, I understand his belief that coming out with this information would result in his being buried, along with the alarm he hoped to raise, by the U.S. government. The Japanese saying about the nail that sticks up comes to mind.
It seems to me that Americans are as completely polarized on this issue as we are on so many others. Either Snowden is a criminal and a traitor, or he’s a hero exposing the evil, systematic plundering of information for which we’d like to believe we have at least some expectation of privacy. In my mind, the core issue when speaking of heroism versus treason in the Snowden-NSA discussion may be whether one’s loyalty rests more with a particular nation-state or with the ever-strengthening community of global human civilization made possible, to the extent we’re increasingly experiencing, through the internet. Snowden hurt the US from the perspective of the segment of its government charged with identifying potential enemies of the state. However, I think he did the world as a whole a great service in exposing the most massive example ever of the state-sponsored theft and abuse of personal information. If we hope to hand down a free internet to later generations, we need to protect people ahead of governments. That’s where the NSA went astray. They stepped off the straight and narrow path of protecting US citizens and skulked off into the service of the system itself, at the expense of the people in whose name it ostensibly exists.
Ted invited the NSA to respond to Snowden’s talk, and I plan to view that video as well for my next post. I’m interested to see how the Agency responds to Snowden’s words, and I’m grateful to Ted for helping to keep this dialogue out in the open where it belongs.