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The Fences of Transparency

April 6, 2015

I was originally planning to talk about Call of Duty and its relationship to our culture of sports today, but then I found this gem (video embedded below), and I just had to talk about it instead. So the CoD post will have to come next week. If you haven't watched the video below (it contains moderately explicit language), I highly recommend it. Not only is it incredibly informative and well-made, it also happens to be pretty hilarious.

Earlier today, in one of the most celebrated videos from comedian and social commentator John Oliver, he discussed the issues and ignorance surrounding domestic and international surveillance programs by the NSA, and included was a long and quite alarming interview with Edward Snowden himself in Russia where he currently resides on political asylum. In the video, Oliver and Snowden touch on the precise impacts of many of the surveillance programs that have been discussed as a result of some of Snowden's leaks*, as well as Snowden's intentions and hopes behind his continued work to improve the NSA's surveillance transparency. I think the media as well as the rest of us are approaching the issue of surveillance from a flawed angle, and I think the benefits of the Snowden leaks lies in how it can correct our vantage point.

As with almost every other complex problem in our society, the first and greatest mistake we make in encountering the issue of surveillance is gross, counterproductive, and irrational oversimplification. But before we delve into the discussion of surveillance itself, we ought to talk about the messenger who is at the core of the important conversations taking place over the last couple of years -- Edward Snowden. A lot of journalistic resource and broadcast air time -- far too much, I would argue -- goes into the debate of whether or not he is a "good" individual or a "traitor" whose actions stand against his home country. But I find this, if not mistaken, completely childish. The real world of real human beings and complex issues does not function like a fairy tale; there is no villain, there is no hero, and there certainly isn't a prince that saves the day with a magic touch. But what I see often in the media is vain attempts to either idealize Edward Snowden as a hero or put him down as a villain, rather than view him as a human being with qualities of both the hero and the villain who happens to find himself in a tricky situation. The same can be said for his actions. The acclaim of his decisions to release formerly classified documents on the NSA's surveillance is just as numerous and well-supported by facts as the arguments that claim that his actions were irresponsible and often resulted in more harm than good to our national security. And yet, knowing all this, I find both the media and smaller discussions often trying to come to a conclusion on whether or not his actions were "good" or "bad". Excuse me for the hyperbolic analogies, but attempting to declare something so complex as Snowden's leaks "good" or "bad" is the high-level equivalent to deciding whether or not white people are Christians or Jews: The discussion becomes entirely irrelevant simply because Edward Snowden is neither a hero nor a villain. He is not attempting to sabotage the US, nor is he the savior of freedom. He is a human being who made his own decisions to take actions based on his personal beliefs on how he may improve awareness of the faults within surveillance programs. And obviously, that has both positive and negative implications, and we cannot separate one from the other.

Edward Snowden is neither a hero nor a villain. He is not attempting to sabotage the US, nor is he the savior of freedom. He is a human being who made his own decisions to take actions based on his personal beliefs on how he may improve awareness of the faults within surveillance programs.

Snowden did not save the world from the NSA, nor did he betray the United States government. What he did instead was raise awareness of the serious problems within the NSA -- both those originating from faulty and abusive surveillance, as well as simply idiotic misuse of the powers that surveillance technology grants those who work within the organization. The majority of the media attention seems to lean towards discussion of snooping on and stealing phone call data as well as online communication contents, from e-mails and encrypted messages to anonymously pirated copies of The Game of Thrones. This half of the issue is important because, as Justin Timberlake so eloquently puts it in "The Social Network", we live on the Internet. By this I don't mean to suggest that we are all addicted in some way to the Internet, merely that our presence online is at such an integral level to our lives that taking it away would have similar impacts to our lifestyles as taking away something more "concrete", such as our jobs or houses. Up until the turn of the century, the extent of our "private lives" remained in the meatspace, mostly confined to the walls of our houses and apartments. But as we move the elements of our lives -- conversations, shared moments, personal information, memories, and careers -- up to the Internet and into our machines, they too become a part of our private lives. The technological world is at a constant evolution, and the fact that computers did not contain too much of our lives decades ago should not in any way support the claim that we do not have a significant part of our lives stored and kept secure digitally. And as giving certain officers the rights to freely break and enter into our bedrooms seems insane, so should the idea of giving possibly unreliable workers the rights to fully and freely invade our digital counterparts -- our "digital homes", if you will -- at their discretion. This leads me to the second half the issue, on supposed actions within the NSA that has nothing whatsoever to do with the outward purpose of the surveillance programs. Namely, sharing and harboring of unknowing users in the nude, for example. Both halves of the issue ultimately reveal one unified picture, that the current status of US's mass surveillance programs is covered in flaws. And I would argue that if the agencies themselves were not smart enough to address the issues internally, it is better for the rest of the world to be aware of them.

The discussion is not on whether or not the NSA is violating our privacy, but whether or not their extreme violations return a benefit to us on the whole that offsets that violation.

There is no doubt that NSA's surveillance is constantly violating our privacy -- it has to, in order to monitor for suspicious and potentially dangerous activities. The discussion is not on whether or not the NSA is violating our privacy, but whether or not their extreme violations return a benefit to us on the whole that offsets that violation. In other words, while we know the extent to which the national surveillance system reaches, the debate is mostly on how much privacy we can sacrifice in return for our "security"**. And to that end, awareness of the faults within the system on which we depend for our security and the integrity of our digital communications is important and necessary, and Edward Snowden has played the leading role in it.

Just as we cannot declare Snowden or his actions completely good or completely evil, it's just as impossible and naive to attempt to declare the NSA's surveillance programs good or bad. In my mind, the goal of constructive discussion on this, as well as other complex problems, should not be to declare something "good" or "bad", but to improve the system in focus and fix the missing and broken links within, to make for a better system in the future. And it's impossible to work towards that goal of a constructive conversation without knowing what goes on behind the closed doors of the government. Edward Snowden, his actions, and what he reveals about the world should not lead us to declare him or our government heroes or villains -- that's not what we ought to be aiming for. His morally ambiguous actions replaced the concrete walls closing us off from the truth, and replaced them with the fences of transparency. What we do with what we find beyond them is for us to decide, but I hope it's not a petty debate, but a step towards progress.


* Although Snowden is responsible for stealing the core documents from the NSA, describing him as a leaker is debatable, since he works more as a messenger, passing the documents to journalists to publish at their discretion, rather than publishing the documents himself.

** From what I can tell, I don't think people are too happy about it. So the question goes, why are we still doing it?