At press time, Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old whistleblower who released classified documents that contained details about the National Security Agency's (NSA's) massive surveillance of U.S. citizens, presumably was considering his next move after being told by Hong Kong officials to leave the country. Government officials there apparently felt that they must comply with agreements pre-established with the U.S. – namely those dealing with extradition.
Snowden, after all, is being accused of treasonous activity by U.S. lawmakers, and so the “land of the free” likely will bring all its power to bear in any extradition case against him. Both Democrats and Republicans say such proceedings are needed immediately so that the U.S. can get on with prosecuting him for his alleged misdeeds.
But, let's leave Snowden's actions for a moment and talk about our government's. So, officials with the Department of Defense (DoD), our president and plenty of others have chimed in over the course of this unfolding story, saying they're not “collecting” data on all of us. It seems the definition of the word is changeable with government use. According to an explanation by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the government – specifically the DoD – considers info “collected” only after it's “processed into intelligible form” and “received for use” by an employee. Data is stored, then government officials enlist algorithms to search it for the good stuff on terrorist activity or the like through use of keywords and analysis of metadata. But, even then the communications aren't really collected, EFF further states.
Now, I don't know about you, but I happen to like the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Our forefathers, bless their little, old hearts, created a mighty handy document that reminds me as a U.S. citizen about all the wonderful freedoms my country is supposed to give me. One of those I embrace with some fervor is privacy, and I especially dig the Fourth Amendment, which protects me against unreasonable searches, seizures and arrests. It even requires that a warrant be used in cases of probable cause for those searches, noting that the scope must be limited to specific information as dictated by the court issuing the warrant. Interestingly, this particular right was put on the books because folks were failing to use search warrants back in the days of the American Revolution.
So, here we are in 2013 and the existence of PRISM has been unveiled. And while the details of it still are coming forth, this far-reaching surveillance program allows the government access to emails, videos, chats, photos and more from about nine (and probably counting) global technology entities. Until now, we never officially knew the government was watching. Folks guessed at it, of course – the skeptics and distrustful ones like maybe you and certainly me. And now here we are.
Snowden, having worked for the NSA for some time, was making bank – around $200,000 a year, and calling Hawaii home. He was living the good life.
He was reported as stating that Iceland also held some appeal to him, and a few officials in that country even seemed willing to give him political shelter, but most experts believe he's unlikely to get it given the now pretty conservative leadership under a fairly new right-leaning prime minister.
Unsurprisingly, Russian officials said they were willing to consider granting him asylum. So what's next?
Whatever the integrity of his intentions and whatever the promises he made to the U.S. government when he signed on to have access to classified documents, are irrelevant to me, frankly. Sure, he's almost certainly armed with a lot more classified information, the likes of which Russian officials would love.
So, for me, there's a larger story than Snowden and it involves much bigger culprits whose actions are far more impactful to the authenticity and, arguably, already shaky moral standing of a country that stands for long-held principles, like liberty, self-determination, independence and freedom. I'd rather divert all the effort and attention being showered on Snowden to the officials making the calls to further trample basic freedoms beyond the scope of what we have witnessed under previous presidential administrations.
There's a lot more to know, but with what we do – from PRISM to the chilling effects of targeting journalists to granting a few companies legal immunity from wiretapping laws – I think we now should test the constitutionality and legality of our own government's actions. After all, Snowden's alleged offenses aren't the only ones needing immediate attention.