Government surveillance erodes “our dignity and the things that make us human,” says Edward Snowden

National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden urges us to continue defending our digital rights in the face of burgeoning digital authoritarianism at home and beyond, because mass government surveillance "robs us of private space, eroding our dignity and the things that make us human."
National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden urges us to continue defending our digital rights in the face of burgeoning digital authoritarianism at home and beyond, because mass government surveillance “robs us of private space, eroding our dignity and the things that make us human” . Photo: Mike Herbst / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

BY OBERT MADONDO | @Obiemad | DEC. 31, 2020

Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about the secret, illegal mass surveillance programs and capabilities of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and its international intelligence partners “opened the world’s eyes to a new level of government misconduct,” according to the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

“Surveillance quiets resistance and takes away our choices,” Snowden wrote in a letter urging us to continue defending our digital rights in the face of burgeoning digital authoritarianism at home and beyond. “It robs us of private space, eroding our dignity and the things that make us human.”

The letter urges us to keep “sounding the alarm and shining a light on mass surveillance”. But how?

Digital rights-related “grassroots work”. And supporting tech savvy organizations that are in the forefront of ongoing efforts to push back against “the tide of unchecked surveillance” not only in the United States but globally as well, such as the EFF.

According to Snowden’s letter:

Slowly, but surely, grassroots work is changing the future… This is how we can fix a broken system. But it only works with your help.

For 30 years, EFF members have joined forces to ensure that technology supports freedom, justice, and innovation for all people. It takes unique expertise in the courts, with policymakers, and on technology to fight digital authoritarianism, and thankfully EFF brings all of those skills to the fight. EFF relies on participation from you to keep pushing the digital rights movement forward.

The EFF describes itself as “the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world. Founded in 1990, EFF champions user privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development. We work to ensure that rights and freedoms are enhanced and protected as our use of technology grows.”

Snowden’s treasurer-trove of classified documents exposed the NSA’s indiscriminate and warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens.

“At the NSA, I witnessed with growing alarm the surveillance of whole populations without any suspicion of wrongdoing, and it threatens to become the greatest human rights challenge of our time,” Snowden wrote in a December 2013 “open letter to the Brazilian people“.

The letter, first published by the Folha de S Paulo newspaper, was seen by some as part of Snowden’s effort to win asylum protection from the Brazilian government.

A lot has happened since Snowden’s revelations opened our eyes to the world of rampant government surveillance.

Snowden fled to Russia in June 2013, where he received temporary asylum.

The biopic “Snowden,” directed by Academy Award-winning director Oliver Stone and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, hit the theatres in 2016.

Snowden’s memoir, “Permanent Record,” was published in September 2019.

In October 2020, Russia granted Snowden permanent residency.

In November, the Guardian reported that Snowden and his wife Lindsay were in the process of “applying for Russian citizenship in order not to be separated from their future son in an era of pandemics and closed borders,” adding that the couple’s first child was due in late December.

Meanwhile, over the years, Snowden’s unprecedent disclosures have had a profound impact around the world. In the US, the USA Freedom Act easily gained passage in both the House of Representatives and Senate.

Writing in The Guardian in September 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders argued:

The information disclosed by Edward Snowden has allowed Congress and the American people to understand the degree to which the NSA has abused its authority and violated our constitutional rights. Now we must learn from the troubling revelations Mr Snowden brought to light. Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies must be given the tools they need to protect us, but that can be done in a way that does not sacrifice our rights.

In his EFF letter, Snowden credited “grassroots work” relating to the ongoing fight against burgeoning digital authoritarianism around the world with legislation such as the USA Freedom Act:

Slowly, but surely, grassroots work is changing the future. Laws like the USA Freedom Act have just begun to rein in excesses of government surveillance. Network operators and engineers are triumphantly “encrypting all the things” to harden the Internet against spying. Policymakers began holding digital privacy up to the light of human rights law. And we’re all beginning to understand the power of our voices online.

Beyond the US, the disclosures put a spotlight on the so-called Five Eyes intelligence alliance comprising Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Supporters of the “Pardon Snowden campaign” argued that the whistleblower’s act of conscience “enriched democratic debate worldwide“.

They had hoped former US President Barack Obama would pardon Snowden before leaving office in January 2017. After all, even former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had admitted that Snowden had “actually performed a public service by raising the debate that we engaged in and by the changes that we made”.

Obama refused to pardon Snowden.

Snowden still faces US espionage charges in the U.S.

Then there is the “age of surveillance capitalism” that Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard Business School professor emerita, so eloquently articulated in the book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power,” published by Public Affairs in the United States in January 2019.

Naomi Klein captured its essence in May, arguing that tech companies, governments and other entities are exploiting the numerous crises we currently face, including COVID-19, to accelerate the development and deployment of privacy-busting surveillance technologies. They are now advancing “a vision of a future in which our every move, our every word, our every relationship is trackable, traceable, and data-mineable.”

In 2020, governments around the world used the global COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to curtail to curtail civil liberties, according to a study released earlier this month by CIVICUS Monitor, a collaborative research project on the state of fundamental freedoms in 196 countries. The study, entitled, People Power Under Attack 2020, found that government surveillance inspired by the pandemic has condemned a 87% of the world’s population to living in countries defined as “closed”, “repressed” and “obstructed”. Rights under attack include fundamental freedoms of speech, association and peaceful assembly.

The very thing Snowden feared when he said: “I don’t want to live in a world where everything I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity and love or friendship is recorded.

Below is the full text of Snowden’s letter:

Seven years ago I did something that would change my life and alter the world’s relationship to surveillance forever.

When journalists revealed the truth about state deception and illegal conduct against citizens, it was human rights and civil liberties groups like EFF – backed by people around the world just like you – that seized the opportunity to hold authority to account.

Surveillance quiets resistance and takes away our choices. It robs us of private space, eroding our dignity and the things that make us human.

When you’re secure from the spectre of judgement, you have room to think, to feel, and to make mistakes as your authentic self. That’s where you test your notions of what’s right. That’s when you question the things that are wrong.

By sounding the alarm and shining a light on mass surveillance, we force governments around the world to confront their wrongdoing.

Slowly, but surely, grassroots work is changing the future. Laws like the USA Freedom Act have just begun to rein in excesses of government surveillance. Network operators and engineers are triumphantly “encrypting all the things” to harden the Internet against spying. Policymakers began holding digital privacy up to the light of human rights law. And we’re all beginning to understand the power of our voices online.

This is how we can fix a broken system. But it only works with your help.

For 30 years, EFF members have joined forces to ensure that technology supports freedom, justice, and innovation for all people. It takes unique expertise in the courts, with policymakers, and on technology to fight digital authoritarianism, and thankfully EFF brings all of those skills to the fight. EFF relies on participation from you to keep pushing the digital rights movement forward.

Each of us plays a crucial role in advancing democracy for ourselves, our neighbors, and our children. I hope you’ll answer the call by joining EFF to build a better digital future together.

Sincerely,

Edward Snowden

[Edited]

Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, photographer, activist, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. Obert is the founder and editor of The Zimbabwean Progressive and The Canadian Progressive, both of which are independent political blogs dedicated to producing fearless, progressive, adversarial, unapologetic, and activism-oriented journalism situated right at the intersection of politics, technology and human rights. Follow Obert on Twitter: @Obiemad

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Obert Madondo
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, photographer, activist, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. Obert is the founder and editor of The Zimbabwean Progressive and The Canadian Progressive, both of which are independent political blogs dedicated to producing fearless, evidence-based, adversarial, unapologetic, progressive and activism-oriented journalism situated right at the intersection of politics, technology and human rights. Follow Obert on Twitter: @Obiemad