Historians can be expected to mark June 9, 2013 as a significant date in the evolution of the surveillance and monitoring of mankind and peg 2013 alongside George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, making 2014 officially 1PS – one year Post Snowden.
There is justification for this chronological divide. The world will be working its way out of the events of last June for years and decades to come, trying to come to grips with the astonishing ability of electronic snoopers to surreptitiously monitor the details of millions of lives.
It appears that they will continue to be able to do so despite growing knowledge of the pervasive level of this surveillance. For instance, US federal judge William Pauley ruled last Friday that the National Security Agency’s massive collection of telephone records is lawful and, citing the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, a valuable tool in the country’s arsenal to fight terrorism that “only works because it collects everything.”
In other words, the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution – which protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure and requires a warrant for the search of their homes, appears no longer to be valid.
Whether you like it or not, care or care less, the Snowden saga that began last June not only stole global headlines unlike other recent historic events but hits at the very core of our modern social fabric, revealing a glaring divide.
“A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all,” said the former NSA contractor turned “indoor cat” Edward Snowden in his “Alternative Christmas Message” broadcast by British network Channel 4 last week, where he stressed that “asking is always cheaper than spying”.
"For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission's already accomplished," he said. "I already won."
He also pointed out that the Orwell novel Nineteen Eighty-Four had already warned us of mass surveillance.
“The types of collection in the book – microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us - are nothing compared to what we have available today. We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go. Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person.”
But does the world really care about privacy – much less the invasion of it?
One need not look further than the tens of thousands of readers’ comments in those online news articles on the Snowden Christmas message. They are far more entertaining and insightful of the state of the world today, amplifying the clear line between the two extremes – the oblivious and the paranoic, the indifferent and the concerned.
It seems fitting to list some of these comments as food for thought:
“Technology, of course, has enabled a great deal of consumer surveillance by private companies, as well. The difference with the NSA’s possession of the data, Snowden said, is that government has the power to take away life or freedom. At the NSA, he said, “there are people in the office who joke about, ‘We put warheads on foreheads.’ Twitter doesn’t put warheads on foreheads.”
“I wish he would start telling us something we didn't already know. A 90 year old person has no conception of privacy, at this point.”
“I find it somewhat funny that the American public is so concerned about their privacy and states that nobody has a right to look into their personal information. This is the same society where so many people are hooked on Facebook that posts people's most idiotic, embarrassing pictures, statements and posts that no normal people should be viewing.”
“The key difference: All those posts on Facebook? All voluntary. People want it there. They chose to put it there. I and many others however did not flail about and say, "NSA please spy on us." Nope. That is the difference.”
“You have nothing to hide? Why don't you post your full name, street address, and date of birth? Who did you vote for in the last few elections? Who are you texting right now and about what?”
“Note to the Judge: It may "work" - that doesn't make it Constitutional.”
“I'm not willing to surrender my freedom so that those who need the fake sense of security provided by mass surveillance can feel safe.”
“Everyone knows countries spy on each other. No one actually believed the US would carry it out to such great extent and also spy on its own citizens to no limits.”
“Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and every department store you have a credit card for has far more of your personal information than the government. They can sell it to whomever they please and pocket the money at your expense. They can read your email, scan for certain key words, and sell or give your information to the highest bidder. And they are taking note of YOU PERSONALLY. Unlike the NSA, to who you are just one of a billion phone calls which, while they have the data, or uninterested in. And they will never sell your stuff to a third party.”
“The NSA is mad at Snowden. They didn't like it when he violated their privacy.”
“The problem most Americans have is the same as Snowden. In spite of his time at the NSA he fails to see the necessity of intelligence. If he and his supporters have their way there would be no intelligence service, the NSA and the CIA would cease to exist. And that is MUCH more dangerous to the American way of life than what he has exposed.”
(Vanson Soo runs an independent business intelligence and commercial investigations practice specialized in the Greater China region. Blog: http://vansonsoo.com Another version of this appeared in The Standard of Hong Kong.)