ASSOCIATE EDITOR AT HOPKINS-NANJING CENTER
Current debate regarding whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks continue to focus on two things: whether the leaks will have a long-lasting impact on American policy, or whether Snowden’s actions were treasonous. On one hand, as noted in a January 2014 Pew Research poll, 57% of 18-29 year olds believe Snowden’s actions served the public interest. He raised the alarm on extensive domestic spying programs run by the United States government’s National Security Administration and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) that approves the NSA’s activities. On another hand, some argue Snowden weakened the United States’ position in international politics after exposing the US spied on its allies, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, recent events have demonstrated the ways in which Snowden’s leaks have benefitted the public.
From an international theory perspective, providing a check on the United States’ espionage activities improves the balance of power in the international system and increases overall security and trust between nations. If other leaders follow in Obama’s January 2014 example and discontinue attempts to spy on other leaders, then strides can be made towards restoring the overall privacy and safety of the global community.
Snowden exposed major security flaws in the NSA’s data retention, sharing and management system. It must be noted that if Snowden was capable of obtaining and smuggling the information on programs such as the phone data collection programs, then that information might also be easily attained by foreign governments or terrorists. The NSA system compromises the safety of the citizens on whom it collects information as admitted by NSA chief James Clapper. Moving away from retaining that information, even if the NSA continues to collect it, is one way of restoring regular American’s privacy rights. Snowden’s actions might have positively impacted American policy via the FISA Amendment and the Patriot Act. Judge Saylor, a member of the FISC court recently stated that the leaks and debate surrounding them should encourage the court to increase the transparency of its cases. These statements have been echoed in various forms by other major members of the government from President Obama to James Clapper. Some senators have even proposed bills to reduce government secrecy authorized by the Patriot Act and allow the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to release more information.
For too long, American policy has been defined by the Patriot Act and as a response to 9/11. Modern problems of new technology, citizen safety, and the intersection of privacy rights have not been addressed by policymakers. Most Americans did not even think about these issues until the Snowden leaks. However, these issues have far-reaching consequences on citizens’ private and public lives as well. Underlying the Snowden leaks is an issue that most pundits forget to discuss. It is not the relationship between Americans, their rights and their government that is suffering due to the NSA programs. Rather, what should be called into question is the relationship between Americans and the businesses they frequent. As communication companies such as Comcast and Time Warner merge, Americans need to reconsider how willing they are to stay with companies that compromise their information and privacy, and then continue to act in highly monopolistic ways. The first step in restoring citizen trust in government and in companies is empowering citizens to bargain with these actors by making sure they understand what they are doing. And that is why the Snowden leaks were in many ways in the public interest.