The real story about Edward Snowden is not the legal drama or even the should-he-shouldn’t-he whistleblower debate. It’s what we’ve learned from his devastating revelations of state computer surveillance. The ethical framework for secret services should be decided by society as a whole
Weekend Word, BBC Wales, 2/8/2013
The transnational limbo of former US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden may have ended for now, but the real story for me is not the legal drama or even the should-he-shouldn’t-he whistleblower debate. It’s what we’ve learned from his devastating revelations of state computer surveillance in the US, UK and elsewhere. Thanks to Snowden we now have a much better sense of what intelligence agencies are doing to access the online and mobile activity of ordinary citizens on a vast scale with minimal legal process.
Along with rendition, detention without trial and drone attacks, this adds to our picture of the dark side of the War on Terror. All this can be defended as means of safeguarding National Security, but the full extent of the surveillance hasn’t been known, let alone debated publicly. US Senators who were meant to be overseeing intelligence activity claim they didn’t know what was happening; and therefore it’s hard to consider the man who informed them a traitor.
A hidden danger in any conflict is that unethical behaviour seems justified with the risk that our own society suffers. The Buddha warned that we tend to see the world through a veil of emotions such as fear and desire, especially when we face threats. Trying to practice Buddhism shows me how easily I treat my prejudices as facts and confuse my interests with the general good. The answer on a personal level is looking honestly at myself and communicating openly with my friends. The equivalent in the public realm is transparency and accountability.
It may well be that when terrorists plot in secret, battling them means invading privacy, and it’s unrealistic to think everyone should know everything about intelligence and security. But Snowden’s revelations show how far this activity has grown. The underlying ethical framework within which secret services work should, I believe, be decided by society as a whole, not a select group of politicians or the services, themselves.
The words that sound loudest in my ears when I think about this subject are those of the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche: ‘Beware that, when fighting monsters you do not become a monster yourself. For when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’