Edward Snowden was appalled.
“They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the then-anonymous Snowden told reporters as his leaks first emerged.
Well, so can Google. And Facebook. And most companies’ internal networks. Creepy? You bet. Calamitous? Not so clear.
Snowden hoped to go to Iraq at 19 when he joined the Army because he “felt like he had an obligation as a human being to help free other people from oppression.”
Commendable, if a bit grandiose. But Snowden’s superiors couldn’t measure up to his ideals. “Most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone,” he said in his coming-out interviews.
That doesn’t describe officers I know who spent years risking their lives trying to help Iraqis forge a better destiny.
Then even a president failed him. It was no single thing President Obama did, you understand. “It was more of a slow realization that presidents could openly lie to secure the office and then break public promises without consequence,” Snowden said.
It’s staggering to contemplate. In the old days, when the scales fell away from the eyes of one callow Rand Paul donor, the result might have been a few beers at the dorm as everyone lamented how compromised adult life really is. Today, a disappointed young libertarian contractor with a security clearance can blow the lid on lawful intelligence methods thousands of Americans spent billions of dollars developing.
The Snowden case is a classic Rorschach test. How you see it depends on what you bring to the seeing. Do you empathize more with those who govern — and who, in this case, are charged with protecting us? Or has the history of abuse of power, and the special danger from such abuses in an age in which privacy seems to be vanishing, leave you hailing any exposure of secret government methods as grounds for sainthood?
There are people I respect who say Snowden is a hero. I think they’re dead wrong.
Thinking about “big data” is a little like imagining how things look to God (assuming God exists). God may love you personally, but she’s a little too busy to worry about whether you get that raise you deserve. The National Security Agency (NSA) may have access to every bit and byte in the land, but the unfathomable river of information their algorithms must mine means no one’s focusing on the text you sent to that guy in accounting.
(To test Big Brother’s reach, my daughter and I e-mailed on how to work with a Chechnyan rebel group to develop weapons for an attack on U.S. soil, as part of a “play” we’re writing based on recent events. No knock at the door. Yet.)
Is there potential for abuse? Of course. An Internet-era J. Edgar Hoover is frightening to conjure. But what Snowden exposed was not some rogue government-inside-the-government conspiracy. It’s a program that’s legal, reviewed by Congress and subject to court oversight.
The conversation would be entirely different today if we’d had a series of attacks since Sept. 11, 2001. As the Wall Street Journal editorial page (with which I don’t usually nod in agreement) wrote, if the nation suffered another 9/11 or an attack with weapons of mass destruction, “the political responses could include biometric national ID cards, curfews, surveillance drones over the homeland, and even mass roundups of ethnic or religious groups.” Practices like data mining, the Journal added, “protect us against far greater intrusions on individual freedom.”
But because vigilance and luck have left us safe thus far from more massive attacks, Snowden felt entitled to indulge the call of his precious conscience. Has any leaker ever been armed with more perfectly crafted sound bites as “the architecture of oppression” and “turnkey tyranny”?
I’ve been spied on continuously by private-sector firms as I’ve written this column. As I typed “Snowden” on Gmail, I got ads for new mortgage rates. My search for “secrets” drew ads for Secret deodorant. My behavior has been fed into algorithms and sold to advertisers. At least the NSA isn’t getting rich tracking my every move.
Daniel Ellsberg says Snowden is a “hero.” Let me suggest a different prism through which to view that term. Somewhere in the intelligence community is another 29-year-old computer whiz whose name we’ll never know. That person joined the government after 9/11 because she felt inspired to serve the nation in its hour of need. For years she’s sweated to perfect programs that can sort through epic reams of data to identify potential threats. Some Americans are alive today because of her work.
As one security analyst put it this week, to find a needle in a haystack, you need the haystack. If we’re going to romanticize a young nerd in the intelligence world, my Unknown Coder trumps the celebrity waiting in Hong Kong for Diane Sawyer’s call any day.