In both a topical speech on Jan. 17 as well as in last week’s annual State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama finally came forward with a response and supposed solution to the widespread data collection and surveillance controversies that have plagued his administration since last June. His new pledges, promising to end the widespread holding of phone metadata, as well as ensuring greater privacy safeguards for information collected, seem like steps in the right direction. These latest words are probably bunk, like the word of the U.S. federal government usually is.
Eight months have passed since Edward Snowden first dropped a media bombshell on government surveillance. Following the recent whistleblowing over the past few years, such as the Wikileaks and Julian Assange debacle, the leaks from Snowden’s government contractor employment may not have caused much of a stir. But the Snowden leaks thankfully took on a life of their own owing to the sheer magnitude and scope of the numerous documents and initiatives that have been brought to life.
The United States has recorded innumerable phone communications. They have secretly surveyed the highest-ranked individuals in allied governments, such as Germany. This news has damaged the trust citizens of the Western world hold for the U.S. government.
The leaks were a tidal wave. No intelligence conspiracy has shocked America to such a degree since Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers leak of the Nixon-era 1970s. The fact that the government, usually close-mouthed on these matters, has come forward to discuss these leaks is a sign in itself as to how serious the situation is.
Snowden made a great sacrifice to expose this information to the public, walking away from a girlfriend, cushy employment at a government contractor and an overall comfortable life in Hawaii. Now he is trapped, holed up in Russia and no doubt monitoring potential threats on his life by agents of the U.S. government.
What Snowden has described since the leaks and subsequent fallout is a global security apparatus that extends beyond U.S. borders. Similar methods of intelligence collection are employed by other countries, through which global citizens’ personal information is shared amongst the spying agencies of the world. The issue has become a dire worldwide problem that puts us all in this together.
To hope that Obama’s pledges will stop these gross invasions of our privacy in their tracks is naive. The United States has yet to implore other countries to pursue surveillance reform. The programs of collection and surveillance practiced by countless other allies and foes of the United States are logging and sharing the very same disturbing information. As citizens we have no way to prevent the sharing of this data with the United States and whoever else is willing to pay for it.
Obama’s promise to reform this spying infrastructure cannot be trusted. He says that government agencies will cease holding metadata. Even if they stop storing it, these promises do not mean that government agencies will stop collecting this data. Nor has the Obama administration explained how their plans for closure will begin. A White House advisory panel came forward with many suggestions for surveillance reform to be addressed by Obama, such as going to phone companies with warrants for digital data. Unfortunately, the recommendations brought forward by this review panel were ignored, and likely won’t be integrated or considered into the future.
I don’t need Snowden to tell me to be worried about such revelations. It should be obvious to anyone that worrying is an appropriate emotion. This spying has acted beyond an elected government doing its duty to protect itself and its citizens from foreign and domestic threats. The lack of warrants, the totality and pin-pointed accuracy of the information the government collects is wrong. American political paranoia, hateful rhetoric, lack of accountability in addressing citizens’ concerns and obsession with control has fueled the attacks on Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers. Spying and information retention feeds global administrations’ thirst for power.
In his first interview with journalist Glenn Greenwald, Snowden’s greatest fear when deciding to release his documents was that people would be apathetic and indifferent. Fortunately, the overall public reaction has been anything but apathetic.More must still be done. Let us remember Edward Snowden’s sacrifices, so that we may be inspired to further pursue the cause of free information when the time comes.