Ross Urquhart: Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know democracy’s greatest threats are internal
Edward Snowden didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize but he received multiple and credible nominations and, as a result, I believe, a statement was made about how we view the future of freedom. People in every corner of the world are now recognizing that democracy’s greatest threats are no longer coming from the outside.
Whether you see Snowden as a traitor or a hero depends on how much trust you place in the democratic institutions of America—and the agencies that protect them. Those of us outside of the United States are used to being affected by American policy but this may be the first time we have caught them purposefully abusing our freedoms. The concepts that form the foundation of democracy are well recognized and universal, and when we discover that the self-appointed dominant force in promoting democratic values throughout the world is an unrepentant fraud, shock waves are felt by all believers.
The event that, in my opinion, solidified this distrust came from a speech Barack Obama gave shortly after Snowden’s National Security Agency disclosures. Like many I naively expected some form of retrenchment or, at least, embarrassment on the part of the American administration. Instead, what I witnessed was their anger and self-righteousness at being exposed. The speech was in front of a large military gathering (of course), and throughout it Obama emphasized the importance of the NSA and how they must keep doing what they are doing—spying on the world—in spite of how contrary this is to the ideals put forth in virtually every democratic constitution on Earth.
Thanks to Snowden we now know that each and every phone call, text, and email, passing through American technology, which includes Canada and a host of other nations, is monitored and recorded by the NSA for links to terrorist activities. What we don’t know is the extent of scrutiny and cataloging each message is receiving. Snowden has also informed us that Canada’s government is not only a willing participant but carries on it’s own spying program, most recently against Brazilian mining interests—apparently for the purpose of aiding our industries in bidding on lucrative contracts. These invasions of privacy will unabashedly continue, even with the secret out, as the United States’ and Canada’s governments attempt to downplay and justify the intrusion as a requirement for their security. In Obama’s previously mentioned speech he informed us that, purely by coincidence, during the previous week the threat of a major attack from al-Qaeda was thwarted with the help of this technology. How convenient such a dramatic example of American defensive strategy occurred just as public opinion was being roused against it, and, of course, how tragic that they missed the Boston Marathon bombing and a host of other attacks by terrorists around the world since.
According to the White House no one has anything to worry about when it comes to individual privacy. This eavesdropping on personal communications throughout the world is only concerned with certain individuals using certain key words that draw the attention of the security administration. The rest of us are just noise. And we know this because that is what they tell us. In effect, the NSA is saying you really have no choice but to trust us because if you don’t you, or your loved ones, may be forced to endure injury or death at the hands of bad people whose ultimate goal is to enslave the world. And we can’t tell you the details because it will warn the enemy.
It is entirely possible I may have developed an excess of skepticism from following the activities of politicians and bureaucrats for so many decades, but such a level of trust is difficult to hand over—even within Canada but especially to public servants in such a highly self-absorbed country like the United States. Many times in my life I have witnessed the truism that “knowledge is power”. It’s been proven beyond a doubt and, yet, I am expected to believe that government organizations exist, which have the ultimate access to knowledge, but remain incapable of using it for anything except to further a narrow defense focus. Does that seem plausible to you? Just try and imagine, as one example, an organization that has the ability to listen to every phone conversation, read every text, and email, open every letter, and monitor every site you visit online—and they can do this for every politician, and every staff member of a politician, and every politicians’ family member or business partner or close associate and, still, they will have no thought of compiling detailed files on these people even though it would take but a few keystrokes.
Who wouldn’t like to have some inside poop on their ultimate boss, or future boss, or present opposition. And what politician is so squeaky clean as to have never made a promise to their most influential backers that might not pass an ethics test—or said something online or in a phone conversation that, if removed from context, might inflame their constituents. Perhaps a particular politician wandered “by mistake” into a website that contained disturbing content, or else they discussed possible benefits for themselves with a lobbyist once during a phone conversation—or flirted with an intern. Even the best people are capable of saying stupid or selfish things in a moment of weakness. Most of us don’t have to face the threat of our follies becoming national news and destroying our reputations and lives—but we should all be able to imagine the power you gain by having this insight.
Communications systems are interlinked and worldwide. They encompass many competing nations and, as a result, the NSA and whomever else (like Canada’s CSEC) are gaining access to the conversations of politicians, bureaucrats, and national leaders all over the world. Prime ministers and presidents of foreign countries; business, religious, and cultural leaders; and major media personalities in each country: all are caught up in the net of global surveillance—and how could any national agency, especially one so full of employees vetted for their patriotic commitment, in good conscience not inform other departments of government, or pivotal business interests, when the success of their efforts are placed in jeopardy. Yet, this can’t be so, according to their spokespeople, as they are above the abuse of power and we are duty bound to trust them because, of course, if we don’t, we put at risk the safety of people we care for.
The technology boom of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has proven to be a phenomenal era. Until recently I cheered it on. Now, knowing how it can be used by a relatively few individuals—who work in complete secrecy, with virtually unlimited resources, and, in the case of the NSA, under the protection of the most powerful government on Earth—I am becoming anxious about the future. This is an enormous level of power. This access to personal information, coupled with its lack of transparency, offers the potential to exercise control over basic freedoms—freedoms taking many generations to achieve and won at the cost of incredible sacrifice. Allowing the NSA such a capability, or any government or organization for that matter, puts the entire future of humanity under a darkening cloud.