Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Snowden and Technological Civil Disobedience

-- By JasonRosenbaum - 06 Mar 2015

Ask Me Anything

In an "Ask Me Anything" thread on the Internet discussion board Reddit, Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald answered questions submitted by Reddit users regarding CITIZENFOUR and mass surveillance more generally. In response to the question, “What’s the best way to make NSA spying an issue in the 2016 presidential election,” Snowden responded with an impromptu essay distinguishing morality from legality and extolling limited government. Snowden asked where we would be today “if the government, enjoying powers of perfect surveillance and enforcement, had – entirely within the law – rounded up, imprisoned, and shamed” people disobeying unjust laws, such as anti-sodomy laws and Jim Crow. He went on to claim that “if people lose their willingness to recognize that there are times in our history when legality becomes distinct from morality, we aren’t just ceding control of our rights to government, but our agency in [determining our futures.]” Snowden stated that “governments today are more concerned with the loss of their ability to control and regulate the behavior of their citizens than they are with their citizens’ discontent. He then claimed that the key to making NSA spying an issue in the 2016 presidential election is to “devise means, through the application and sophistication of science, to remind governments that if they will not be responsible stewards of our rights, we the people will implement systems that provide for a means of not just enforcing our rights, but removing from governments the ability to interfere with those rights.” Snowden suggested the adoption of encryption by major technology providers as an example of a system that impedes the government’s ability to interfere with rights.

Snowden’s response exists within the context of contemporary political philosophy. His distinction between legality and morality alludes to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail"; in which King distinguishes between just and unjust laws and advocates the disobeying of unjust laws while stringently obeying just laws. His assumption that the government has a duty to be a responsible steward of its citizens’ rights stems from the idea of popular sovereignty, “We the People,” famously codified in the preamble of the United States Constitution and distinguished by James Madison in his "Spirit of Governments"; from the military or oligarchic sovereignty enjoyed by tyrannical governments. Encryption as a means of activism is an idea that is currently popular with groups such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Interestingly, Snowden did not directly answer the question of how to make NSA spying an issue in the presidential election, but, instead, expressed frustration with the realities of American politics. He mentioned his disappointment with President Barack Obama’s backtracking on his campaign promises to increase government transparency and close Guantanamo Bay. He also complained about the mainstream media’s inability to produce a healthy public debate on mass surveillance, noting that it is far more interested in what he said when he was 17 or what his girlfriend looks like rather than “the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history.”

Technologies of Self-Defense

Snowden’s frustrated response to the question of how to make NSA spying an issue in the 2016 presidential election demonstrates his understanding that the American political system and mainstream media cannot adequately address the growing encroachments on civil liberties by national intelligence and law enforcement.

As a consequence of his celebrity status as a whistleblower, perpetuated by his fugitive status and frequent public statements, news outlets often focus on Edward Snowden’s personal life rather than his revelations of NSA and GCHQ misconduct. Consequently, the public discourse surrounding mass surveillance has been all but replaced by a tabloid-like fixation on Edward Snowden as a public figure. Since media narratives regarding celebrities are necessarily polarizing, much of the public discourse about the Snowden leaks concerns whether Snowden is a “hero” or a “traitor” – not whether, for example, the NSA is acting unconstitutionally by building a 1.5 billion dollar facility in Utah to house between 3 and 12 exabytes of private communications seized without probable cause. Furthermore, as Glenn Greenwald mentions in his own response, Capitol Hill will often quash public debate over the constitutionality of surveillance through bipartisan support for the Intelligence Community, and the increasingly likely prospect that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic Party nomination makes a political solution to mass surveillance unlikely at best.

Snowden believes that technologies of self-defense for civil societies against the State, not politics, can restore the balance between citizens and government power. Although he did not explicitly state that the democratic process is currently nonviable for combating mass surveillance, Snowden seemed to be substituting the question-asker’s assumption that the democratic process is the key to stymieing surveillance with his own claim that the proliferation of encryption and anonymity software will have a greater impact on keeping the United States government in check. While Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated civil disobedience to draw attention to unjust laws, Snowden’s solution to NSA mass surveillance is to make it harder for mass surveillance to operate by advocating for individuals, corporations, and organizations to protect their personal communications through encryption and other means. In this sense, Snowden is not advocating for civil disobedience, but for the individual responsibility of utilizing technology to protect ones' digital communications from prying eyes. As Snowden put it, "[t]he idea here isn't to fling ourselves into anarchy and do away with government, but to remind the government that there must always be a balance of power between the governing and the governed, and that as the progress of science increasingly empowers communities and individuals, there will be more and more areas of our lives where – if government insists on behaving poorly and with a callous disregard for the citizen – we can find ways to reduce or remove their powers on a new – and permanent – basis."

I agree that better encryption technology is essential to self-rule in democratic societies. As we transition into an era where virtually every long distance communication is electronic and our identities are tied to social media, the only bulwark between the individual and government intelligence services will be encryption of some kind. In his AMA response, Snowden hits on a unique and very overlooked idea - that Americans have the individual responsibility to protect themselves from government spying through the use of encryption technologies and a better understanding of Internet Protocol. At the same time, I'm skeptical toward the idea that politics cannot play a role in helping to curtail government mass surveillance. Despite the lackluster media response to the initial leaks, mass surveillance continues to be the focus of a lot of political and media attention, from the ACLU case currently making its way through federal courts to John Oliver's popular segment on mass surveillance. If mass surveillance is to be defeated in the United States, I believe that we will have both protect ourselves through technological means and attack mass surveillance through the media as a hot button political issue.


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r5 - 26 Jun 2015 - 20:12:02 - MarkDrake
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