Obsessing About Snowden Blinds Us From Bigger Truths

by Bill Brenner on June 26, 2013

I’ve hestitated to write about Edward Snowden, the former technical contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) who leaked details of top-secret mass surveillance programs to the press. People see him as either a hero or a traitor, but I’ve been conflicted.

Mood music:

I used to fear everything and wanted the government to do everything possible to keep me safe, even if it meant giving up some liberty. I eventually got past the fear and now believe we must live life to the fullest, even if it means we’re not always safe. That part of me distrusts government and considers Snowden a hero for exposing how much spying the NSA does on its own citizens.

I also write about information security for a living and have many friends in government. I’ve seen the risks they take to secure us from terrorists and online attackers and how they’ve resisted the urge to talk about what they see because they believe it would damage the greater good. Snowden used to work among them and, by doing what he did, betrayed them. That part of me thinks Snowden is a traitor. His flight from the authorities only solidified that feeling.

Yesterday I decided to take a position one way or the other. I invited friends on Facebook and Twitter to weigh in, and found that half of those who responded think he’s a hero and the other half think he’s a traitor.

But the comments made me realize that by focusing on Snowden and the NSA, we’re distracting ourselves from bigger truths.

The important thing is what this story says about many of us Americans:

  • How we get obsessed with hero worship without considering all the supposed hero’s motives. Those of use who mistrust government are quick to raise people like Snowden on a pedestal, viewing him as a brave soul who exposed government’s evil side. But when you flee and pass on government secrets to countries like Russia and China, countries far more challenged in the freedom department than the U.S., are you really heroic?
  • How we crave scapegoats because it’s easier to scowl at a scapegoat than consider how we allowed the government to spiral out of control. After 9/11, we were so scared that we willingly allowed the government to enact overreaching laws like the PATRIOT Act. We’ve been paying for it ever since.
  • How we miss the forest for the trees. The larger lesson is that we could change things if we were willing to do the work.

We need to stop the blame game and look at what we must do as Americans to change things for the better.

We must be willing to hold political leaders accountable and stop reelecting the very politicians who vote to authorize more and more government control.

We must own up to the fact that we allowed the government to head down this path. If we’re outraged about the end result, we have to reexamine how much safety we’re willing to give up in the name of liberty and push the government in whatever direction we set. Then we have to keep our eyes on the road instead of falling asleep at the wheel.

I admit all that is easier said than done. Democracy is a messy thing. Good people have a bitch of a time reaching consensus. We’re all conflicted and challenged by personal demons every day, and it can be hard to overcome those things to give better government the effort necessary. We’re all busy with family and work, which usually leaves little time for anything else.

Change is hard. But if we want it that badly, we have to work for it.

Edward Snowden

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dwayne Melancon June 26, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Thanks for writing this, Bill – very good analysis (or observation, or whatever you’d call it).

I’ve also been back & forth on this. On one hand, I’m glad I know more about what is going on so I can factor it into my life. On the other hand, I feel like Snowden blatantly violated a contract he personally agreed to honor.

And it is not about a guy – it’s about a government, a society, and trust.

Keep it up, sir.

John Ellis June 26, 2013 at 10:33 pm

Bill, love your work.

Whilst not an American, hell I don’t even live in the US of A, there is a great line from a favourite band of mine (Rammstein) in their song amerika (America) that sums of ‘some’ of my feelings – “we’re all living in amerika”.

You can debate the meaning of this song, but for me it’s about the US’s largest export – it’s culture. We are all influenced and impacted daily by the good old US of A.

As a kid growing up in the land of the long white cloud (New Zealand), I’d dream of visiting the US, and going to Disneyland ( I digress as I often do).

We’ve all been impacted by Snowden’s actions. I agree that intelligence agencies need the ability to ideally connect the dots before the ‘event’ but if not at least after the event. It’s a delicate balance in creating a system that aims to detect the bad amongst us and allow us to have freedom of speech and not impact our civil liberties.

If the system is run with the sole objective of protecting the safety of the people, then great. However without transparency and oversight, what is stopping the the government or overly zealous politicians / administrators from retasking the system for their own agenda?

Rammstein is correct, we are living in America. The Patriot Act makes sure of that along with the reality that the majority of cool stuff is US made or controlled. Facebook – US, YouTube – US, Skype – US, windows, apple, Google, damn it we are living in America!

So…IMHO Snowden gets an A+ for bringing out this topic for further public debate.However he gets a massive fail for disclosing topics that really are detracting from the cause – transparency and oversight of such intelligence systems like prisim.

Now you have the Chinese who are taking the moral high ground, which IMHO is a bit like a drug dealer saying see ain’t I a good guy cause I didn’t sell crack to the school kid.

See, this is just diluting the whole debate, because of Snowden’s egotistical desire to be the digital Gandhi. OK maybe I’m a bit harsh, but this guy should have stayed on topic.

OK, that’s my rant over….thanks for taking the time to read.

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