My thoughts on the Snowden revelations

It’s school days once again.  Supposing my teacher in Science and Technology, or maybe, Social Studies, tells the class to write an essay about the Snowden affair, I would write it exactly this with the aim of receiving a high score (that is, as long as my teacher reserves an open mind).


There are now officially two Edwards who’ve taken this generation by storm.  First came Edward Cullen, the beautiful Volvo-driving vampire averse to human blood and who for love of the human, Bella, is only too happy to risk his life.  Next, Edward Snowden.  The former, a fictional character whose fans rather wish was not.  The latter, a real flesh and blood whose superiors rather wish was just a character in their worst nightmare. But, fictional or not, both are young people (Edward Cullen is a hundred years old or more, young in vampire time).

I’ll get to the age later.  First, Snowden’s message arising from his revelation of the extent of NSA’s data mining.  The way I see it, the contestation over the matter framed in technicalities and legalese boils down to basic decency and human dignity.  In other words, the decency to get permission or give notice in order to retrieve and use what are deemed as private property, in this case, intellectual property mostly (e.g. patents, trademarks, geographical indications, copyrights, trade); the decency to knock on the door or ring the bell when visiting a home or residence as opposed to just turning the door knob and barging inside (allegory referring to material properties involved such as, personal laptops and mobile phones).

Are not personal emails “original works of authorship” hence copyrighted material?  Were not, according to Snowden, copies made out of these (as they were passed along the communication channel), and have not user agencies in certain instances profited as a result of information culled from them? See the US National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) report on the Intellectual Property and the National Information Infrastructure.  The context for such an infrastructure is provided by the US Department of Commerce’, Cybersecurity, Innovation and the Internet Economy.  The NIST has also released the Green Paper on Copyright Policy, Creativity, and Innovation in the Digital Economy.  There’s much to be internalized from these outstanding policies, but basically they’re clear about:

Today’s cybersecurity threats include indiscriminate and broad-based attacks designed to exploit the interconnectedness of the Internet. Increasingly, they also involve targeted attacks, the purpose of which is to steal, manipulate, destroy or deny access to sensitive data, or to disrupt computing systems. These threats are exacerbated by the interconnected and interdependent architecture of today’s computing environment. Theoretically, security deficiencies in one area may provide opportunities for exploitations elsewhere.

Despite increasing awareness of the associated risks, broad swaths of the economy and individual actors, ranging from consumers to large businesses, still do not take advantage of available technology and processes to secure their systems, nor are protective measures evolving as quickly as the threats. This general lack of investment puts firms and consumers at greater risk, leading to economic loss at the individual and aggregate level and poses a threat to national security.

– Cybersecurity, Innovation, and the Internet Economy

The issue of cybersecurity begs answer to the question of, when is retrieval of, say, copyrighted material (email, or basically personal letters, sent via a personal device), not an infringement of the author’s IPR and property rights?  I believe that’s what the argument is really all about, in technical, legal, and practical terms.  Arguments for freedom and privacy can be subjective, dividing people into ‘my freedom’ vs. ‘your freedom’ therefore whose freedom matters more?  Freedom and privacy need to be translated into practical terms and property rights are something that people in democracies can tangibly relate to.  If you grab my land, or deliberately trespass on my grounds then…. the consequence is clear and both sides know it.

The policy of turning over each and every property in the land, however, is like saying all are terrorists until proven innocent, which common sense naturally rejects as false because otherwise why are we all even alive today?  My point is, there has got to be a better solution to the fight against terrorism than subjecting all human beings, mostly innocent of the crime or even the thought of it, to the indignity of having their properties, their private thoughts and feelings, intruded into by unwelcomed eyes and ears whose owners don’t wholly know them if at all hence are in no position to judge them by fragments of their thoughts and feelings.  It’s like the blind men and the elephant. Each man is limited in knowing the elephant to that part that he touches and feels.  I wouldn’t want blind men to define who I am (and the answer to who I am is for many a lifelong search).

Second, globalization.  Snowden has brought his case to the global public, which I think is what common sense will dictate given that the Internet is an entity intended for use on the global plane hence concerns everyone in the planet who had linked to it at one time or another or continues to connect to it for whatever purpose and intent. The concept of ‘global citizenship’ is given flesh and made more meaningful through this platform.  Therefore, rules governing the Internet such as who can take what from whom and why should be debated and decided at the global level, as what the global community is doing for DRR and CCA.  Yes, the Internet is this significant.  And that is perhaps, the most revealing implication emerging from Snowden’s revelations.

Third, age.  The Age of the Internet is the Time for Young People (the young at heart are welcomed).  It is their medium of expression. It defines their generation.  The technologies that further enhances or increases the utility of this medium are their inventions.  It is from their ranks that such technologies were invented, reinvented, and reinvented some more.  This is their practical response to JFK’s address to them, “ask not what your country can do for you, rather ask what you can do for your country”. I bet JFK, if he were alive today, would fall off his chair at such doing which had immediately caught global attention and continues to spread on that scale.  He couldn’t have imagined it! It is young people therefore who, relative to the age groups, feel more strongly, possessively, toward this medium and would fight by tooth and nail to protect it.  Beyond and outside of the Snowden case, news is that the Internet is undermined, patrolled, by the older age groups, fearing that capabilities never before unleashed will be released using this platform.  It appears that the generation gap has yet to be resolved, the battle field now elevated to the global level of the Internet from it’s limited exposure at the family unit.

I have one thing to say about this Age though that may explain why Snowden’s revelations haven’t moved the globe as urgently. It’s that this generation is also the Selfie (and Groupie, or whatever else they call it) Age.  Many, and increasingly so, would rather be identified than not on the Internet. They want the whole world to know significant aspects of themselves, in explicit forms.  They don’t anymore see the national as the ultimate boundary. The target now is the world. I’m still trying to understand why in contrast to majority of public personalities private individuals would want to broadcast the day to day nitty gritty details of their personal lives online, particularly, and this personally bothers me, their exact locations. Or, why snapshots of food, booze and chicks get a thousand likes whereas cause-oriented campaign shoots even by well established institutions like museums receive just fifty or so likes. And apparently some people’s happiness and sense of self depend on the number of likes on a photo and if you don’t like their photo they’ll unfriend you, for real. All because of a mere photo! Is there some great black hole of need inside this generation? And that their contrived solution is taking to technologies and media hosted on the Net as if these were humans? I’m also particularly worried that private telephone numbers are being asked by programs just so you could use their services.  For me, unless this is so I’d be sent birthday wishes or flowers congratulating me for my successes (although these in themselves would be weird, coming from owners of programs which I’ve just randomly picked out), I don’t get the rationale behind the demand. But for many, it’s not a bother.  This has been going on a while in that sphere so that when Snowden revealed what he did, it didn’t come as a 250 km/h-storm wind-kind-of-surprise, at least for those using the platform for this purpose, as they’ve known they’re watched, deep down, at the back of their minds, unacknowledged until his revelations but then it only confirmed what they’ve harbored. Maybe they’ve thought about the implications of giving up important aspects of their privacy in exchange for a certain type of happiness, validation, or recognition, or maybe not, but regardless these users are not complaining about the current governance, if there is at all, of that space.  And if you can reveal yourself naked online for any one in the world to watch anytime on their time, why should the taking of a less revealing side of you, an email, by someone from that same world online cause you sleepless nights? It doesn’t. Perhaps that in a way provides unscrupulous others the agency to go ahead and take without notice.  I hope I’m making sense here.

Obviously I haven’t written anything for the NSA.  But I understand, on a personal level, the effects and impact of crime.  I myself have survived a crime.  The experience has totally changed my views of safety and security and to a large extent, my general view of people: they are criminals until proven innocent.  Crime does change its victim in significant and deep ways.   At one point though I realized that fear was ruling my life, limiting and constraining me, not as an outside force but rather because of how I was viewing things.  I also realized that fear is the chain by which those criminals wanted to control me, in effect still connecting me to them. I don’t want anything that links me to them.  I knew then that I need to turn my fear and hatred lurking somewhere behind it into something positive without jeopardizing my security in the process, to strike a good balance. I believe that targeted or focused surveillance (of known criminals and those linked to them) is justified.  I don’t agree to en masse or suspicionless surveillance (whether of people or organizations, public or private) however.  The Desiderata is correct, there are still many good people in the world and we ourselves belong to that group.  I won’t purposefully subject these many good people to the very undignified treatment that criminals give their victims. They deserve far better treatment.  And if entire populations have to be surveyed in certain circumstances, the question is, where is the boundary beyond which surveillance shouldn’t step across (although I can’t think of circumstances that would call for mining of data from entire populations.  The world had WW I and II yet the good side won and without surveillance at this scale.  The counter argument would be, many more lives would’ve been secured had there been such a surveillance.  I don’t think so.  For one, those on the other side, the enemies, anticipating such a move would rely on the more traditional but tested modes such as a network of human messengers to pass the message onward)?  Boundaries. Human dignity. Respect.  Decency. Disregard of these basic relational, shall I say, rules, turns one into the very criminal whom one abhors, which in turn gives that person cause to laugh the last laugh.

I don’t know how the Snowden case will conclude, of course I don’t, but all I can say is, I still believe in the great democracy that is America, it’s founding values reimagined and kept alive by the mainstream today through it’s namesake, the patented superhero Captain America, and despite the challenges that have tried it’s democratic processes, those are the same basic set of values which continue to see it’s people and institutions through; that it’s leaders have not really forgotten this, deep down; and so, in the end, side with what is right, fair, and just. Snowden’s whistleblowing act wasn’t the first or the second even, which should prompt decisionmakers to take a second look into the system that was the cause for these whistleblowing.

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