Before I start this post, I’ll discuss what motivated it: one of Snowden’s cultish-like followers telling people to get VPN from outside of Five Eyes countries (meaning US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand). This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me on this issue.
I don’t think a wide ranging recap is warranted but for those living in a cave for the past 6 years, Edward Snowden revealed methods by which intelligence services and signals intelligence services monitored communications, such as internet communications, following 9/11. It was the “revelation” of mass US surveillance. Full disclosure here, there was a time when I bought into the Snowden scares. I took measures to safeguard my privacy online, got a little paranoid about the whole “internet being monitored” bit etc. But to be fair, as a student of state repressive laws and policies, (and when bittorrent was hugely popular) I had figured those communications were already being monitored before Snowden came out with his document dump of classified material proving it. So what changed for me? Why does this guy and his privacy parade bother me so much now? It’s certainly not because I don’t think privacy important, sure I do, I still use encrypted email and even VPN through my browser. So what’s different?
A few things. I’m not in grad school anymore and that’s important because when you’re surrounded by other people talking about big bad government all the time, it tends to cloud your judgement. This isn’t a knock against university but the climate of the time in which I went through it was the same time George W. Bush invaded Iraq, secret prisons, anti-terror law, surveillance and even torture were in the news almost daily. So I was wrapped up in the Snowden “mass surveillance is evil” atmosphere of the era as were most people.
What else has changed? Since that time, Snowden’s biggest most well known allies in the “freedom” crusade, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, have proven themselves to be avid supporters of one of the most anti-free speech, anti human rights governments in our era – Russia (and this is thanks to it’s leader Putin). It goes further. Chelsea Manning, once Bradley Manning, the individual who also turned over troves of classified docs to WikiLeaks and was imprisoned for it, has recently been chumming around with members of the far-right in the US. Many individuals in that movement also idealize Russia and Putin as the last “savior” of the white race (only heterosexuals though). So when the crowd surrounding Snowden and those that helped him leave Hong Kong have these ties, and Snowden escapes to Russia, one cannot help but wonder and think that maybe old Ed’s sympathies lie not with the West but with Kremlin.Even some journalists that covered his story in the Guardian, and have since left the paper, have appeared to be far more critical of US institutions than of Russia and the current US president’s possible connections to that country.
But even if you think Snowden did his exposure for the right reasons (he was morally appalled by surveillance techniques and programs etc.) you have to admit that presently everything he says on this issue benefits his host nation, Russia. And that’s because all his discussions about surveillance almost exclusively center on how horrible the West was in its surveillance programs because that’s his realm of experience. Add to this the man has to make a living now and by his own admission that living has to come from public speaking. And what is the topic he’s publicly speaking on? You guessed it, the evils of Western surveillance. The Russian state propaganda news outlet, RT, was perfectly willing to feature him and his privacy app on their programming for God sakes. Can he speak about the human rights abuses of his host nation? Nope, not a word because certainly if he tried it he’d be gone in a heartbeat, his usefulness dried up. Put simply, he’s presently become a tool of the Russian state, either willingly or through shortsightedness, but the result is still the same.
And there is the rub for his cult-like followers that hang off every word he says about surveillance. Even if he wasn’t working for Russia when he leaked his docs, his absolute stupidity in geopolitics led him to end up being used as a propaganda piece and tool of a corrupt anti-western regime in a geopolitical game. So there is no either or here. There is no he’s a “traitor” or a “hero.” He leaked docs, and that happened either because he was a traitor to start with or allowed himself to become one out of gullibility, foolishly blinded idealism and/or stupidity.
So why did that comment bother me? Because education has since made me realize how foolish that statement is. This doesn’t mean I support illegal surveillance or abuses of power, if anything, the incident revealed how internal policing methods to protect against such abuses need to improve, not that such leaks should be dubbed “heroic” by the media and praised. You could call it a chicken and egg scenario. How do you do the reform without the leak and vice versa? Well, I think worth asking is: was the leak really necessary? I ask because this recent surveillance originated with a public W. Bush Executive Order that authorized warrentess surveillance and that order was already being publicly challenged. Those studying this were aware of this before Snowden as was anyone interested in the law. What the leaks were more focused on was how the NSA could do its surveillance and that was completely separated from any contextual discussion of why they were doing it and who they were looking for, and the why and the who was/is pretty darn important to the discussion. If you could challenge the order in court, why expose the surveillance methods used by your government which helps your government’s enemies? You cannot deny his leaks helped governments hostile to his. VPN, encrypted email, etc. were all available pre-Snowden if anyone cared to use them (I did, still do occasionally) and post-Snowden I doubt many people changed their online habits anyway.
I’ve since learned from historic research in this area, that any notion that people in the West had some kind of absolute right to privacy is a total fabrication. For decades in the Cold War Western governments had the ability to wiretap communications on potential spies and traitors through a mixture of secret laws and regulations. Here’s the big question, and how many were skirted away in the middle of the night, innocent of any crime, because of secret wiretaps and mass surveillance? How many in a country like Canada? What I’ve seen is historical records that show the RCMP was very paranoid about abuse of the system, abuse of secret wiretaps, and yes sometimes it was abused but they wanted public laws created so there were no secret programs! So here’s the rub for
Snowden supporters, even with Snowden’s leaks, you have more privacy today in your communications than you ever had!! In Canada for instance, intelligence has never had this much public oversight and this much public debate and this much judicial regulation in it’s history! It was teaching about this history that opened my eyes to this and seeing historical documents on the subject. How much oversight and how much regulation is there in Russia? After all, Snowden’s followers think you should get a VPN from outside of the 5 eyes. Newsflash, Russia just tried to execute a former spy in the UK, that’s because there are NO limitations on their intelligence services.In the end, the Western intelligence services I’m sure don’t give two shits about your downloading of Game of Thrones, your political views, or much of your online activity, unless you have a thing for downloading and uploading jihadist training videos, childporn, organized crime, spreading disinformation or engaging in espionage, you should be OK. Russia on the other hand, Snowden’s host, won’t even tolerate your criticism of the government, even if it’s legitimate.
This doesn’t mean we give people blank cheques. Of course we should scrutinize and debate the powers of agencies but we should keep that discussion in perspective based on where we are today and where we’ve come from. What I can’t stand more than anything is blatant hypocrisy, and there’s nothing more hypocritical than a guy currently going on and on about Western surveillance (to make money off his talks) all while trying to sell a privacy app promoted by the Russian government. Are you kidding me?
So in sum, yes I’ve had quite enough of Mr. Snowden.