Thoughts on Edward Snowden and the NSA

It has been an ongoing topic of discussion in the media regarding Edward Snowden and the NSA since the story was initially covered in a series of exposes starting on June 5, 2013 .   It has raised a lot of questions about  our government and their role in national security and the lives of its citizens.  There is still information we do not know about that Edward Snowden has obtained and the ramifications of his actions.  What data did he leak? How much data? Why did he do it?  What will the final fall out be from what has been disclosed? Is there even greater controversy ahead of us?  There are those who consider him a criminal and those that consider him a saint. Some even want to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize. What is painfully clear is that the discussion he has brought before us regarding our civil liberties is relevant and very timely.  Maybe more fundamentally the questions is, “What is privacy”?

A small recap on what has happened.  Edward Snowden was a contractor for the National Security Agency.  He collected a lot of data from NSA surveillance and decided to make it public via the web.  The data was leaked to the Guardian and the Washington Post.  Some of the sensitive information showed that the US had been spying on allies such as Germany and Brazil. Snowden explained his actions saying: “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things [surveillance on its citizens]… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded… My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them”.  Because of his actions Edward Snowden was forced to flee the United States, first going to Hong Kong and eventually seeking and receiving asylum in Russia.

There is no question that Edward Snowden broke the law.  Had he done this forty years ago he probably would have been tried for treason.  He would have been hunted by American intelligence agencies. We were in the midst of the cold war and the likeliest of buyers for this type of information would have been the Soviet Union (For younger audiences watch the Sean Penn flick, “The Falcon and the Snowman”).  He also has impacted American standing in the world.  Despite the nature of what has been spied on when it comes to other foreign leaders,  I find it a bit hypocritical that some say “they are shocked”.  As more details come out it seems everyone is spying in everyone.  This seemed known and common during the cold war.  Did people somehow expect that this stopped when the Berlin Wall fell? Not surprisingly Edward Snowden received asylum in Russia.  Our foreign friend are shrewd political animals as well.  President Obama was all lined up to take the Chinese to task over cyber security.  But once the Snowden documents leaked that discussion was dead on arrival.

Times change, that much is written.  In today’s society a few things have caused a data collection explosion.  When mobile phones burst onto the scene our time spent talking increased and what in the telecom world is known as a call detail record (CDR) also increased. These CDR’s exist in terabytes and each carrier has many terabytes of these stored, as does the NSA.  Initially this was the big crux of what the NSA had collected, on many private citizens.  It is the world Edward Snowden does not want to live in.  The problem is the thirst of technology is not one of a ethical dilemma. How will Edward Snowden feel when he is driving down the freeway and exceeds the speed limit by 10mph and receives a ticket via text or email?  If he disputes it a video recording can be produced to verify he broke the law.  As most of us know this technology exists today.  How much video is stored of people who are not breaking the law?  What is done with it?  When you go to 7-11 are you being recorded?  The technology of data collection today is not sophisticated enough to tell what is threatening to national security and what is purely a private conversation.  That may evolve but I believe we are a long way off in solving that problem.

Edward Snowden says he was elected to do this.  That he has done the public a service, but remember one of the backdrops of all this high-tech surveillance is 9/11.  Even Bill Gates when asked recently on the Charlie Rose show, could not offer support to Edward Snowden.  We have a choice before us, do we want to risk another 9/11?  In order to prevent that what are we willing to sacrifice?  We live in a world of ever-increasing connectivity which means more and more information is know about each and every one of us.  The only way to avoid this is to completely disconnect from mobile phones and the internet and in doing so disconnect from society.  In our lust for goods and services I do not foresee this happening anytime soon.  In fact it will only accelerate, we are in a very exciting time as things that once seemed beyond the realm of reality are no longer that far off.  We have private space travel, it is still very early, but we have it available. Robocop the movie is being re-energized, RoboCop the reality may not be so far off..

In the end I think though some may consider Edward Snowden’s plight noble, however I think he was naive in the way the world works.  What he wanted was his cake and he wanted to eat it to. Without saying it he wants to be disconnected.  He is concerned about what the government is doing, but what about corporate America?  The idea of privacy is a complicated one.  In a world being increasingly driven by the concept of instant gratification we give up privacy on a near daily basis.  Our security is being threatened via cyber space on a daily basis.  In the long run Edward Snowden may be revered for what he has done, however in the short run he is nothing more than a common criminal, who had the big ideas of youth but not the understanding of experience.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann February 13, 2014

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