Snowden: all-seeing, or myopic?

Updated 6/16/2013 7:44 AM

Edward Snowden, the youthful information technician who leaked our nation's top-secret cyber-spy program, has made his mark on history. I suspect his "moment of fame" will last more than 15 minutes. And after all the debate about what he did, history will have to decide if it's really a moment of infamy.

History tells us about the changes in mankind's events. Some major changes go unnoticed in their own time. But eras of paradigm shifts get contemporary attention. People were aware of the Industrial Revolution when it was happening. Most people know we're now in a Cyber Revolution. And, apparently, Snowden is warning us that we need to pay better attention.


Snowden "revealed" that our top security entity, the National Security Agency, gathers electronic transmissions (phone calls, emails, etc.) that originate in the U.S. or traverse the country from overseas. But it's not just the NSA.

A telephone app soon to be sold to the public is capable of looking at an incoming call and presenting the receiver with "an impressive screenshot of (the caller's) personal and professional data: Facebook pictures, email contacts, mutual friends."

Forbes Magazine reports that a Target employee responsible for data mining customer preferences figured out 25 products that women buy that indicate they're pregnant. From sales slips, he can even predict with some accuracy the baby's due date. So Target sends out special coupons to encourage shopping for the baby.

Defense contractor Raytheon boasts in an ad that the computer chips it makes for the Patriot defense missile system are "as small as a speck of pepper." Google tells me that the online ads I receive may be based on an email I'd received and read.

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It makes me wish for the days when the biggest threat to my privacy was the giggling teenager listening in on the telephone party line. Perhaps in this age of plug-ins, Facebook and Twitter, our definition of privacy has changed. We're in an information free-for-all. Or free-fall.

Still, when it comes to data mining, maybe there's a difference between business and government. According to Snowden, at least, the U.S. government should be acting differently.

Snowden says he doesn't want his leaking to become about him. But, it has. His choices, even his reaction in an interview, guarantee it.

Snowden flew to Hong Kong to do his leaking. Hong Kong is a "special administrative region" of China, a nation not known for its commitment to the civil liberties that concern Snowden. He defended his choice, saying Hong Kong had "a spirited commitment to free speech."

Really? Freedom House, a free press advocacy organization that supports Snowden, downgraded Hong Kong's media freedom score this May, citing "several violent and technical attacks against reporters, websites and media entities." And while Snowden was meeting with reporters, a publisher of a political magazine banned in China, was beaten in Hong Kong.


Snowden added that China was no enemy of the U.S. Again, really? Snowden must know, firsthand, how damaging Chinese hacking is to U.S. businesses, national defense and our press.

Snowden is highly intelligent, informed and a walking databank of U.S. secrets. He knows he will soon be a hunted, wanted man. So maybe he chose Hong Kong because of a "memorandum of understanding" between Hong Kong authorities and the United Nations that has enhanced the protections there for asylum-seekers and refugees.

(In a Cold War-worthy ironic twist, the Russians announced they're considering offering Snowden asylum.) Given that Snowden's choice for self-exile, Iceland, requires he be on Icelandic soil in order to apply for asylum, and that Interpol can have him taken off any plane en route, he clearly knew what was coming.

Snowden apparently is staying at a $650 a night luxury hotel "just up the road" from the CIA station in Hong Kong. In a filmed interview, he makes reference to it, saying, "I'm sure they're going to be very busy for the next week." Snowden's delighted grin reveals he's enjoying the fuss.

If Snowden is reveling in the melodrama, it comes with the territory: a young male who envisions himself with only a lightsaber against the Death Star. Or a bow and arrow against Smaug.

I'm not discounting his idealism. He clearly is genuinely concerned about NSA's massive data-mining program. He described the U.S. spy program, meant to protect us against terrorists and enemies, as a "panopticon" -- a composite of two Greek words that means "to see all."

Before we try to "see all," maybe we should try to "see clearly," at least these two points: First, NSA surveillance is not new (see the Patriot Act of 2001) and it's now regulated (see FISA, 2006). But as "The Daily Show's" John Oliver said, "Instead of being spied on by the executive branch, it turns out we're being spied on by all the branches. ... No one is saying that (the government) broke any laws; we're just saying it's a little bit weird that (it) didn't have to."

Second, omniscient data gathering is part of the worldwide Cyber Revolution; countries -- and corporations -- with far less commitment to civil liberties than the United States are doing the same.

2013 Universal

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