Columns / Discourse / February 5, 2014

Edward Snowden: The Digital Frontier

Every few weeks now a new set of documents is released from the formidable stash of files that Edward Snowden gave to Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian columnist who first dropped Snowden’s bombshell that the National Security Agency is engaged in widespread surveillance of innocent American civilians. The latest release shows that — wait for it — the government is using Angry Birds to spy on us.

It’s been an interesting journey as the U.S. comes to terms with Edward Snowden, the whistleblower extraordinaire who continues to drop rocks in the pond long after his first boulder hit the water. He doesn’t fit into our established narrative of the political dissident. He is not just a whistleblower; unlike Chelsea Manning, who simply saw terrible things and knew they had to be made public, Snowden has both an ideology and a plan. That’s what makes him so dangerous to the U.S. establishment.

After all, there actually is a narrative into which Snowden’s image fits: the classical trope of the TV terrorist, dropping messages of warning to the American public from grainy videos with nondescript backgrounds.

In movies like The Dark Knight Rises and Iron Man 3, characters like Bane and the Mandarin exploit class resentment while using terror for their own means. These movies are captivating because they play two of our most hated figures against each other: the powerful and corrupt elites who smoke cigars at night clubs while the poor are kicked from their homes, and the violent terrorists whose sole purpose is to cause wanton suffering to innocent people.

Our mind is caught in detested fascination between those two evils, eventually settling with the conclusion that the status quo must remain the way it is or else chaos will erupt. From this false dilemma comes the legitimization of a system with powerful elites, the system we live in today. The only element that Snowden lacks in this comparison is that he is a whistleblower, not a terrorist. Nonetheless, the public is afraid when they hear his name.

You can see the existential anarchy-vs-status quo puzzle grinding away in the minds of the United States as people express their discomfort with the way Snowden ran away to Russia instead of facing the consequences of civil disobedience. Maybe blowing the whistle is good, but if anyone can get away with releasing classified information, then what will happen?

Here’s the first issue with that question: were Snowden to return to the United States, it’s doubtful that he would be tried for releasing classified documents alone (something within the role of the U.S. government). He would be charged with treason, as was Chelsea Manning.

International asylum laws exist precisely for the purpose of protecting dissidents from political retribution, which is made clear in this case by the government’s dangerous comparison between whistleblowing and treason.

The broader problem with that question, however, is its automatic assumption of legitimacy on the behalf of the U.S. government. At this point in history, the digital world is not some tidy place under the jurisdiction of an authority. It is a frontier.

The U.S. government’s massive spy program, propped up by the paper-thin excuse of anti-terrorism, is as rogue as WikiLeaks. What makes Snowden and his generation of activists (including Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange) unique is their understanding of this reality.

Rather than stand by and appeal to non-existent law, they have taken up roles as vigilantes.

As Bruce Sterling over at Geek Empire wrote on WikiLeaks’ assistance in getting Snowden to Russia: “Assange, and his tiny corps of hacker myrmidons, actually managed to keep Edward Snowden out of U.S. custody. Among the eight zillion civil society groups on the planet that hate and fear spooks and police spies, not one of them could offer Snowden one shred of practical help, except for Wikileaks.”

We are witnessing the expansion of a frontier where no ground rules are recognized, and all sides are fighting with their teeth and nails. It would be nice to end this column with some stable insight; a piece of firm ground to stand on in the midst of the shifting story before us. But sometimes history is anything but firm.

Leland Wright

Tags:  American public Bruse Sterling Chelsea Manning civil disobedience classified documents Edward Snowden Glenn Greenwald National Security Agency Russia spy treason United States whistleblower

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