The Snowden Effect: An Opportunity?
Pro-privacy activists and others have a chance to reinvent the conversation about security and privacy in the digital age.
“The Snowden Effect” continues, with more exposés about the level of government surveillance of citizens to come. Esquire political columnist Charles Pierce first used the term, defining “the Snowden Effect” as “the direct and indirect gains in public knowledge from the cascade of events and further reporting that followed Edward Snowden's leaks of classified information about the surveillance state in the US."
At minimum, there is what Snowden leaked about top-secret US government surveillance programs. And then there is what Snowden has set in motion with those leaks. There have been benefits: the new debates about the trade-offs between privacy and security that are erupting across the global worlds of business, government and media are needed; they were missing before Snowden’s revelations. Journalist James Surowiecki, writing in this week’s New Yorker, says Americans hadn’t, until those leaks, “fully thought through … the ability of companies and now, the government, to collect and hold enormous amounts of data on a routine basis.” (Russians, too, are grappling with the implications. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor this past Wednesday, Russian Senator Ruslan Gattarov said the upper house of the Russian Parliament will ask Snowden to help it “work out measures to protect private information on the national and international levels.”)
On one hand, we’re experiencing a kind of big data shock; on the other, we’re waking up to need for a citizen response to big data. We knew businesses were data-mining us—right down to the tiny details of our shopping and spending preferences—so as to better sell us our next e-book, car, or mobile device. But now, thanks to Edward Snowden, we’re also aware that the government is data-mining us, peering into our most mundane communications—from what we talked about with our mothers last Sunday to the Save the Whales petition we texted to our colleagues last weekend. Presumably, the government is committing all of this surveillance to keep us ever safer from terrorism, but post-Snowden public opinion polls show that rising numbers of Americans are beginning to think it’s all gone too far. As writer Jane Meyer noted recently in The New Yorker, the government and Facebook are hardly the same thing: Facebook just wants to show you advertising; the government can throw you in jail.
So what comes next? If knowledge is power, what should be the proper citizen response? Might the Snowden Effect include an opportunity for some new citizen-backed policies designed to reign in the nation’s enormous, post-9/11 surveillance apparatus?
There is hope—not a lot, but enough to contemplate as lawmakers start plotting their return to Washington this fall. Here’s why:
- First, our chronically divided Congress now seems much more united around the idea that the massive intelligence-gathering programs created after 9/11 have gotten out of hand. Prominent lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are warning the NSA and the Obama Administration that they plan to push harder this fall for specific, citizen-backed reforms.
- Many major Silicon Valley-based Internet companies have joined a loose coalition of pro-privacy and data transparency activists that is calling on the Obama Administration to release more information about the Snowden leaks and limit the reach of government surveillance. This coalition’s constituents include millions of Internet users, and the same data whiz kids who helped Barack Obama beat considerable odds to win the White House in 2008 and keep it in 2012 for another term. Internet company customers and Obama supporters show up on many of the same databases. In a letter sent to the Administration last month, 20 Internet companies said they are concerned that the Snowden leaks are focusing, in part, on the privacy of the customer information they are collecting. Might the Snowden Effect lead to an opportunity for Internet companies to join with their customers and advocate for rollbacks in the government’s citizen surveillance programs?
- And third, as social networks evolve and mature, they are continuing to elevate new voices and force political and policy change in ways large and small around the world. To be sure, the Internet is emerging as an interest group, in and of itself, comprised of millions of people who make a living from working on the Internet, help build the Internet, or simply identify with it more than (or as much as) they do with any one government, political party, or established institution. As this “internet public” becomes more active, it is amassing the power to fuel street protests in the Middle East and Brazil, and to lobby for policy changes in the United States, including last year’s successful push in Washington to stop SOPA Internet censorship legislation dead in its tracks. Today, says Pew Research, three in four US adults use social networks to communicate and organize, and they are just beginning to flex their muscles. Will the Snowden Effect include a move by some online social networks this fall, pressuring the White House to roll back some of its surveillance machinery in favor of new privacy protections for citizens?
Say what you will about Edward Snowden, but there exists in the Snowden Effect an opportunity for pro-privacy activists, Internet companies, and the President himself to reinvent the conversation about security and privacy in the digital age, and to start working to assemble a more balanced and nuanced framework.