On Thursday, the Guardian released a wide-ranging videotaped interview with Edward Snowden.
The NSA whistleblower’s candid comments about government spies passing around nude photos got most of the attention, but Snowden also said some pretty profound things about the long-term implications and threats inherent in sweeping government surveillance. He pointed out that technological advances make it much easier to access personal data, but asked why we should treat it any differently than something written down and kept in our drawer at home.
The question is: why are our private details that are transmitted online, why are our private details that are stored on our personal devices, any different than the details and private records of our lives that are stored in our private journals? There shouldn’t be this distinction between digital information and printed information.
Defenders of mass surveillance always bring up the “security” defense, arguing the government must capture, store and analyze massive amounts of data to find the proverbial needle in a haystack that could prevent a terrorist attack. Snowden brilliantly personalized that analogy and asked an important question: is this the kind of society we want?
I would argue that simply using the term “haystack” is misleading. This is a haystack of human lives. It’s all the private records of the most intimate activities throughout our lives that are aggregated and compiled and stored for increasing frequencies of time. It may be that by seizing all of the records of our private activities, that by watching everywhere we go, that by watching everything we do, by monitoring every person we meet, by analyzing every word we say, by waiting and passing judgement over every association we make and every person we love, that we could uncover a terrorist plot, or we could discover more criminals. But is that the kind of society we want to live in? That is the definition of a security-state.
One of the reporters asked Snowden how long it’s been since he read George Orwell’s 1984. He laughed and said it’s been a long time, but he cautioned against limiting ourselves to Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian surveillance-state.
Times have shown that the world is much more unpredictable and dangerous than that.