Thursday, December 19, 2013

Snowden, Greenwald and the lost right to privacy


I wrote this article for the UCL Human Rights Journal, it was published November 27, 2013.
The right to privacy is a human right, but what exactly does this right entail?  This is not so easily explained, which is why it has not been clearly and specifically defined by anyone.  While the US constitution does place limits on the government’s ability to intrude on individuals’ right to privacy, this was before modern technology came into the picture, and therefore it was much easier to outline an individual’s right.  But now that government surveillance programmes and other such programmes have been created, there is a greater need for the legal system to state in a clear-cut manner what our personal right to privacy is.  Up until Edward Snowden opened the floodgates by whistleblowing on the United States’ National Security Agency’s surveillance program PRISM, no one was really addressing this possible human rights violation.
Edward Snowden is one of the most controversial figures in the world at the moment. When I Google his name, articles pop up with headlines like ‘American Hero’ while right below, other headlines call him out as a traitor.  Whatever side you fall on, one fact is undeniable – he has opened up an important debate about a citizen’s right to privacy with regards to government surveillance.  His choice to leak government files has touched a nerve.  In Snowden’s words, his aim was “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”  His disclosures have started important debates regarding mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the balance between national security and information privacy. And this is not just a human rights violation that affects US citizens.  A recent article by the BBC claims that the U.K. has allowed the NSA to store phone numbers and email addresses of British citizens since 2007.
On Friday night I went to a talk by Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who exposed the mass surveillance program (PRISM) in the leaks by previous NSA employee Edward Snowden this past June.  Greenwald has worked for Salon.com, The Guardian, has published four books (three have been New York Timesbestsellers), has also won awards for his work in journalism, and is considered one of the top American journalists at the moment.  Greenwald was in Rio de Janeiro so the talk was held over Skype.  The first part was questions asked by the two moderators which covered topics that ranged from legal to political, especially focusing on the lack of safety measures on government surveillance programs, the individual’s right to privacy, and the freedom of the press to release these documents.  There was also a 30-minute session where the audience could ask questions.  I have included some of the highlights from this talk below.
One individual brought up the government’s claim that Greenwald’s decision to release the PRISM documents was a careless move.  Greenwald responded by stating that although there are tens of thousands of government documents he has the ability to publish, only about 300 have actually been released to the public. He could have easily released the tens of thousands of documents all at once, but instead he and his colleagues have taken the time to sift through and carefully pick and choose what they feel is necessary for the public to be shown.  If they were trying to take down the government they could have released everything all at once. Greenwald also stated that he thinks it is smarter from his end not to release all of the documents at once, as then the important details will not get the necessary attention.
One person asked about Edward Snowden’s seeking asylum in Russia and what Greenwald thought of this considering Russia’s less than stellar human rights record.  As Greenwald put it, no one questions the 100,000 people who seek asylum in the United States on a yearly basis, even though they are seeking refuge in a country that has a record of torturing, breaching citizens’ rights to privacy, and the list goes on.  No one ever questions or challenges these individuals’ choice to seek asylum in a country with this marred record.  And the only reason anyone is questioning Snowden is because of who he is.  In addition, Greenwald pointed out that Snowden was not planning on seeking asylum in Russia but was actually in transit to Latin America before the United States interfered with his travel and asylum-seeking plans.
The US government has formally charged Edward Snowden with theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information, and wilful communication of classified intelligence to an unauthorised person.  The US president has openly said he does not see Snowden as a patriot, and he also claims that his administration was in the process of reviewing the programmes that were unknown by most American citizens.  He claims Snowden’s leaks were detrimental to this process.
We will most likely never know if this is true, and perhaps I am unnecessarily sceptical and untrustworthy of the United States, but I highly doubt that there was any such process underway or even such a process being discussed.  Snowden did the public a service by exposing an aspect of the government.  Hopefully people pulled their heads out of the sand and became more aware of their government’s actions.  One thing is certain – our right to privacy needs to be reassessed and defined within the context of a world run by modern technology and filled with government surveillance programs.
Francisca Stewart
Let me know your thoughts on this debate.  Do you agree with me? Do you think I'm completely off? Where do you stand?