I saw this Oscar-winning movie last weekend, and, tellingly, despite very recently winning the Oscar for Best Documentary, it’s only being shown in one cinema in the whole of Melbourne. And yet everyone with internet access should watch this movie, because its message affects all of us.
For those living under a rock, Edward Snowden famously revealed that the US is capturing all our on-line activities and mobile phone calls, even though, as revealed in the film, various representatives of the government had been openly denying this (even under oath) for some time. The closest we get to acknowledgement is when someone says, in a Senate Committee Hearing, in response to this very question about accessing people’s digital communications: “Not willingly.” Reading between the lines, one could conclude that it could happen ‘accidentally’, which suggests a couple of options: the information is available if they want to access it; or they might accidentally access someone’s data whilst trying to access someone else’s, whom they can legitimately target (via a court order or whatever judicial process is required). As it turns out, thanks to Snowden’s expose, we know it’s the first option.
Ethically, there are 2 distinct but related issues implicit in the same movie. Are the American Government’s activities in this regard, ethical, and is it ethical for Snowden to use his position of privileged information to break his Government’s trust (as well as the law) by revealing them to the rest of the world?
There is a third ethical issue, entwined with the previous 2: is it ethical for the American Government to pursue Snowden with the full force of its law, treating him, effectively, as a traitor and a spy (they are charging him under the espionage act)?
Let’s deal with the first ethical issue first; after all, it’s the one that triggered the other two. As pointed out in the movie, this ‘action’ on the part of the American Government is a consequence of 9/11 and the threat of terrorist attacks anywhere in the Western world. It’s also pointed out in the movie that England have even more comprehensive measures than the US, regarding tracking everyday digital information of its own citizens.
On the same day I saw this film, I heard a news bulletin that here in Australia, the Government is currently debating a bill requiring internet providers to keep all user activity (in Australia) for however many years (I don’t know if there’s a limit). Interestingly, the only proviso the Opposition suggested is that journalists be protected in order to protect their sources. This is a very important point, because it’s only journalists that can keep politicians honest, and journalists’ roles in providing a conduit for Snowden’s ‘leak’ was crucial to his expose. I’ve said before that the health of a democracy can be measured by the freedom that journalists are allowed in criticising their elected leaders. Keeping sources ‘secret’ has been critical (at least, in Australia) in allowing journalists that particular freedom.
There are similarities between this documentary and the not-so-recent movie, Kill the Messenger, because, in both cases, someone exposed the Government or the Government’s agents in activities that the public were unaware of, and, in both cases the Government, or its agencies, effectively destroyed the whistleblowers’ lives.
But this parliamentary debate taking place in Australia reveals an ethical distinction, which, in my view, is worth noting. In Australia, because it has to be passed as Parliamentary law, it cannot be done without the public’s awareness, and, I feel, this is where the American Government went wrong. I don’t have an issue with them keeping all my digital data, most of which, like this blog, is freely available to the public anyway. And I understand how such data is crucial to stopping terrorist attacks, so, as long as the data capture is not used to persecute me personally, I have no problem.
Having said that, the movie points out how data collection on a nation’s citizens is a first step in controlling or oppressing that citizenry. So, hand in hand with this action is an essential ‘trust’ that it will be used only for spoiling terrorist attacks and that the essential democratic character of the nation won’t be compromised in the process. In some ways, this is a moot point because, after watching this film, I couldn’t help but feel that this will never be reversed. We already live in a quasi-Orwellian environment where our entire lives can be tracked digitally, if someone so requires. We effectively have no secrets regarding our on-line activity (including mobile phone communications).
Towards the end of the movie, there is a news clip of President Obama saying that we needed ‘to have this debate’, implying that it could have occurred without Snowden’s revelations. However, this is contradicted by earlier video footage (alluded to above) that, even under oath, no one was going to admit to this whilst the public remained ignorant.
And this brings to the fore Snowden’s ethics. There are some similarities here between Snowden and Assange, both of whom are now living in exile, because both had sensitive material that embarrassed the American Government in particular. However, Snowden is probably more like Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, who had access to and leaked the relevant files, in that both men acted on their conscience at considerable personal cost.
But, in the case of Snowden, he demonstrates neither the naivety of Manning nor the ego of Assange. It is clear from the outset that Snowden understood fully the consequences of his actions, and is remarkably calm throughout his entire dealings with the specific journalists he colluded with in order to make public what the American Government preferred to remain covert. This is the crux of the issue for me: not that the American Government is collecting all our communications data, but that they did it behind our backs and are now enraged that some individual dared to let everyone know.
There is some irony that Snowden now lives in exile with his partner in Russia, a country not renown for honouring freedom of speech or freedom of the press. If Snowden had done to Russia, what he’s done to America, he probably would have been assassinated. As it is, in America, they will lock him up and throw away the key, just like they’ve done to Manning, assuming they ever catch him.