A soap opera starring Edward Snowden?

A storm of protest and commentaries has been unleashed after, at the beginning of June 2013, American traitor/ whistle-blower Edward Snowden released via English-language mass media (initially it was The Guardian and The Washington Post) the information about a secret American surveillance program of Internet resources called PRISM, which has been in operation since 2007, and later more secrets of the American electronic intelligence service. This event touched a whole range of issues sensitive and delicate with respect to the functioning of contemporary societies and the foundations of Western democracies, because they centred on the protection of civic liberties and their restriction or infringement by governments. The storm was triggered when The Guardian made public a 41-page PowerPoint presentation explaining the methods of direct access to the data of the greatest American IT companies to be used by American electronic intelligence agency NSA. The presentation, classified as “top secret”, was used to train American intelligence community members in the functioning of the system and its features. For all those especially interested, detailed information of the presentation can be easily obtained as the whole case has been widely written about home and abroad[1]. The directors of major American IT companies whose names appeared in the presentation denied allowing American intelligence agencies “direct” access to their servers, but they admitted to cooperating with those agencies within the scope provided for by the American law. The boss of all the bosses of national security institutions (Director of National Intelligence), James Clapper, confirmed that such a system operates and is used for the surveillance of Internet information resources and it targets foreigners and a small number of American citizens who maintain contacts with foreign citizens suspected of being a threat to the national security, under the FISA act (the last 2012 amendment including) and authorised by the FISA Court (FISC)[2]. Also, President Barack Obama defended the program saying that it is appropriately balanced so as to provide national security and to protect the civil rights and civil liberties.

The “source of the leak” and the place of its whereabouts was revealed on 9 June 2013. “The leak” turned out to be a former employee of the CIA and the NSA, 29-year-old Edward Snowden, who – when the information was made public – was in Hong Kong (where he supposedly had flown on 20 May 2013 from Hawaii, where he lived and worked). He then gave an interview to the British paper The Guardian, in which he explained the motives behind his actions. He claimed that the reason why he informed the public about the scale of the surveillance of the global community was his “need to inform citizens about the actions that authorities undertake on their behalf and against them”[3]. Subsequent articles published by The Guardian, The Washington Post and German paper Der Spiegel brought a large amount of information on surveillance programs of Internet resources used not only by the USA intelligence, but also by its British sibling, the GCHQ. The information visualised the proportion of their cooperation and also their surveillance of their allies – Western societies and governments, which perplexed the high European and EU officials, who demanded that the scale of such activity be brought to light and discontinued. The world also learned that at the G20 summit, the NSA made an attempt to invigilate Russian delegation, the then president Dmitrij Miedwiediew including. And what’s more, the “hosts” also extended their surveillance over the delegations from other Western countries that convened at the summit. Hardly any day of June and July passed without new pieces of information about the affair, and there are more to expect in the future, the immediate and far-off future, since Snowden is thought to have amasses a real treasure mine of information[4] (though without NSA “crown jewels”[5]).

The man behind the whole buzz, Edward Snowden, has remained in the spotlight of media attention. With time, his escape became more of a soap opera rather than an odyssey as he kept appearing and disappearing to finally emerge in the transit zone of the Moscow airport Szeremietiewo. At first, because he had had his passport annulled by American authorities, he was grounded just like Victor Navotorski in the film Terminal played by Tom Hanks (2004)[6]. Eventually, on 1 August 2013, he was granted an asylum, which he had claimed, by Russian authorities and was able to leave Moscow airport[7].

The PRISM scandal provoked a real tsunami of hypocrisy, innocent-sounding explanations and outrage that spilled all over the traditional media and Internet forums. The information leaked by Snowden in fact did not reveal that American authorities broke the law, abused their powers or used information against innocent people, what it did reveal though was how powerful the authorities were in collecting and analysing Internet information. It turned out that they actually do what they have been suspected of doing! The issues that the scandal exposed and those that it shed light on deserve serious consideration. It’s also worth taking a closer look at those subjects that the scandal dragged into the centre of global public opinion. The selection of such subjects presented below is arranged from the most general and relevant to the most detailed and trivial.

The impetus of the initial outrage that hit so hard and debilitated rational thinking, originated from the sheer realisation that the national security institutions penetrated the world of e-communication. Media commentators, Internet users and governments posed questions: “seriously, are we being spied on and watched by Americans? No Such Agency really exists and it’s not a figment of the pop culture of espionage films and novels?” Such revelations did not bear any substance in the face of persistent rumours of the American program ECHELON, which is familiar to anybody who has ever seen the film starring Will Smith and entitled (nomen omen) The Enemy of The State (1998), which presented to the international audience the Hollywood version of how such a program could possibly work. The material disclosed by Snoweden definitely proved that billions of dollars that USA spend on their information agencies are spent as planned i.e., on detecting prospective threats by penetrating the omnipotent source of information – the Internet – and their neutralisation, so everything that they are expected to do. Meanwhile, the fact that intelligence agencies moved into the world where millions, if not billions, of people had become present and active should not be surprising; as a situation to the contrary would. We live in a world where employers spy on their employees by browsing through their profiles and reading through their “tweets”; lovers use the Internet to check if they are being cheated on; students cheat in exams using smartphones and hackers hack into computers taking control over their systems; it would be hard to expect that operations officers did not get interested in the electronic “fingerprints” left by job-seekers or informants-to-be, websites visited by terrorists or their chats or documents stored on-line. Those more familiarised with espionage issues pretended to be shocked not by the occurrence itself, but by the presumed scale of the activities – supposedly, Americans were able to spy on everything[8]! Why not? If a hacker in Kaliningrad with a laptop computer worth 3 thousand złoty is able to turn my computer into a zombie, what can be expected of a state agency with financial resources of billions of dollars per year and thousands of employees, not to mention hectares of processing capacity? Security agencies in the pre-digital era tried to gain access to traditional mail by simply opening envelopes or to secret documents in the safes in public authorities’ offices by bribing its employees; and the only thing that is different in the digital era is that accessing information resources in the virtual reality is far easier, though more time-consuming.

This event drew attention to the interference of secret services into one’s private sphere, as if creating a Facebook or Twitter account was not opening one’s private life to the outside world! While sending an e-mail is considered to be “private” (no unauthorised person should gain access to one’s correspondence, unless it is a matter of a greater good, like human safety, if there’s a real hazard), uploading photos on Instagram or a video on YouTube is not considered to be within one’s private sphere, because we make a decision to make our “private” materials public. Most of Internet space has become a vast global widely-accessible public forum which some have used to seek audience to feed their exhibitionism, so they should not complain now that their voluntarily publicised materials are viewed. Secret services have gone further and now monitor all kinds of individuals’ activity, which should make people realise that by entering this virtual world, where nothing can be hidden before surveillance systems constantly improved by governments; now the essential question is how the services will use the information about us and our actions.

The PRISM scandal has touched a fundamental problem between the need to provide by the authorities a minimum level of security to the open societies that are prone to brutal attacks, and the obligation to protect and ensure basic civil rights and civil liberties, the right to privacy including. The detection of a danger, and the people behind it, is strictly connected with the need to monitor certain spheres, which is a violation in itself; however, abandoning such surveillance puts individuals at the risk of falling prey to the danger which was not detected when the surveillance was discontinued. So, the real power of the state to guarantee safety to its citizens stands in open conflict with protecting civic liberties and their privacy. The trick is to decrease the surveillance to the necessary minimum, with efficiency of the services maintained by an acceptable level of privacy infringement and protection of a vast part of this sphere. If authorities invade my privacy in a good cause, and at the same time do not abuse their prerogatives by using the information that they can access and store against me, I can sleep peacefully. Yet, the materials disclosed by Snowden do not point to such practices – he did not present any evidence or document that the American government used information against anyone not suspected of having committed a grave crime; he only protested against the possibility of large-scale storing of the information in the virtual world. It seems that American citizens can sleep peacefully.

Another element is the fact that national security institutions act clandestinely and any public and unrestrained debate on the methods they use to protect their citizens is out of the question – Snowden casus has been an exception here. The burden of balancing the proportions between enabling the state to provide security (one of its basic functions) on the one hand, and the protection of the precious social liberties on the other, rests on the shoulders of the legislative and the institutions controlling and supervising the “guardians of security” – an everlasting dilemma: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? As far as it is possible to estimate, it can be argued in the materials revealed by Snowden on PRISM program that there is no evidence that the rights of Americans were not duly protected, and the right balance between the use of the surveillance powers by national security institutions and the protection of civic rights and liberties was not maintained. It all looks different in case of foreigners in the USA – the NAS and similar institutions were able to monitor them freely. For a more metaphorical explanation: outside the USA boarders, the Big Brother watches you more intensively and digs deeper and more extensively into your secrets than on the American soil, where its actions are restrained by law. Can that surprise anybody? Outside the USA, the hound of electronic intelligence service has its muzzle taken off, and so citizens of other countries must beware, because once in the virtual world, they will be under the watchful eye of the American Big Brother. But they don’t have anything to worry about unless they engage in military actions against it. The scale of the information obtained from the Internet is far beyond human perception, which means that the Big Brother is in fact a system of many computer programs[9] which sift through the Internet and require special filters. So far, there has been no evidence of the Big Brother persecuting those who did not deliberately oppose it[10].

Clearly, the problem of maintaining sate ability to protect its citizens and at the same time respecting the basic liberties of a sovereign society is today closely related to the technological advancement – increasing potential of developed countries to monitor their citizens, especially the contents they make public on the Internet or browse through, as well as with the nature of contemporary societies, which organise a large part of their lives in the virtual world. Open societies must be constantly aware of the on-going development of technology and they must never stop putting pressure, both by citizenship organisations and the democratic political processes, on the legislative as well as the executive. The sovereign – an open society – must exert constant control over those whom it has entrusted with law making and implementing, so that the guardians aren’t granted excessive – and unnecessary – powers in the scope of their competences. The sovereign must remember that the Leviathan of bureaucracy is be nature willing to extend the scope of its legal capacities, and left unattended may become degenerated and turn into a neototalitaian technological beast. Without solid civic society institutions and an active participation of all citizens in taming the hound of the security services of contemporary state and its acolyes, which disposes of ever more refined technical means to control information, manipulate and monitor individuals, even those societies with a long tradition of liberty and democracy can be endangered[11]. Without constant vigilance of open societies and actively performing groups for citizenship and human rights, there is a possibility that a new kind of totalitarian rule will emerge – different than fascism and communism, but equally uncompromising and additionally equipped in better tools to control individuals, especially in the virtual space;  a regime ruthless in the sense that most choices whether to pass on to the analysts or to ignore the information obtained is made by computer programs. One undeniable benefit of the PRISM spectacle is making people aware of the disturbingly large technical capacities of the contemporary state apparatus to spy on the society. The only safety fuse that protects American citizens from unrestricted surveillance and access to information about them is the state officials’ absolute adherence to the law that they supervise. As long as they are made to do it and later held accountable for their duties, we will not see a new techno-totalitarian monster incarnated. But we need to remember that freedom is never granted once and for all, and we must be vigilant if we don’t want to have it taken away, not necessarily by one blow, but bit by bit.

The possibility of breeding such a techno-totalitarian monster is more likely in places where citizens’ liberties are no-existent or radically limited. The PRISM scandal has – quite paradoxically – drew attention to an issue as yet not talked about, namely state surveillance of societies by authoritative state powers of such countries as China and Russia, which Snowden has (for the time being) made his shield against the American reprisals (the USA has accused him of espionage and fraudulent seizure of property). It’s worth making a (rhetorical) question whether China and Russia also dispose of similar surveillance programs, for both the national and global monitoring, and considering how Chinese and Russian citizens are protected from the interest that they receive from state security services as far as their virtual activity is concerned. What normative acts are there to protect Russians and the Chinese from their own surveillance services? Which court allows state electronic intelligence services to use technical means to spy on their own people? It would be interesting to hear what a Chinese or Russian  Snowden would say and see these governments’ reactions if such a whistle-blower disclosed their secrets[12]. The wave of attacks on the American government obscured – it would seem – the fact that the rights and liberties of citizens have been defended with the greatest force by those countries where they either do not exist or are notoriously violated; countries where the opposition has no possibility of winning in a free and democratic election, and is often actively persecuted. Snowden was right is saying that it is absurd that two most repressive and authoritarian regimes have been involved in his protection. The state apparatus of these countries does not flinch from any action that will protect the political cliques of the Kremlin and the CPC from losing their power. It could thus be suspected that they also use similar software systems to spy on the Internet activity of the people they consider a national threat. If those societies do not follow the “Arab spring” and use a propitious moment to change their political systems radically, they – and we all – might witness the rise of a new totalitarian system based on modern information technology which aims at factual and effective control of the population. The danger of technology-totalitarian rule – in Western open societies now only theoretically possible – will be absolutely real and imminent, should they relinquish their sovereign powers, and even more likely in Eastern tyrannies, where sovereign rule is persistently limited for the benefit of the ruling (self-appointed) few, just like in China and Russia. The PRISM scandal has surely been used by these countries, if not choreographed by them, as a smoke screen so that they could boldly heap criticism upon the USA from a safe hiding place in their shadow. The scandal has become a global propaganda victory for the two countries that could attempt to damage American reputation one more time.

It’s interesting that the PRISM scandal took place exactly one day before the planned visit of the president of CPC and at the same time PRC to the USA, to meet President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands, California on 7-8 June 2013 to talk, among other things, about the issues of cyber-security, which – as American media wrote earlier – Mr.Obama wanted to raise, and especially the alleged attacks of Chinese hackers on American state and corporate servers. As American commentators noticed, the PRISM affair has totally clouded that topic and took away from President Obama’s hand a strong argument of the USA “moral superiority” in cyber-security topic. How could one accuse the Chinese of attacks on American servers and at the same time defend themselves against – as it turned out founded – accusations of using to the full the resources of the servers of key American (and global) IT companies? This way, the June American-Chinese summit unfolded in a “peaceful and factual atmosphere” and the Chinese guest was not molested by uncomfortable incriminations. A few days later though, the streets of Hong Kong filled with supporters of Snowdens’ right to disclose the information that he had gained while working for the CIA and NSA. The protesters carried inventive banners showing President Obama as Captain America and saying: „Big Brother watching you[13]. One of the foreign commentators coined a catchy slogan „United Stasi of America[14], a Swedish professor put forward Snowden as a candidate for Nobel Prize[15] and the same commentators of Western magazines exposed “totalitarian” nature of the USA and sinister intentions of its “military and intelligence complex”. An ardent advocate of citizens’ rights and liberties protection, President Putin, publicly said to Snowden, upon his arrival at Moscow airport, that if he dared to violate the interests of Russia’s “American partners” again, he would not receive a warm welcome. Western media openly compared Snowden to Sacharow and even Solzhenitsyn (at the same time comparing the USA to the USSR), while in Poland a group of “leftist” politicians appealed to the European Parliament to extend special protection over Snowden[16]. The score in this fight of propaganda between China and Russia vs. the USA: knockout in the first round.

It does not come as a surprise then that one question publicly debated was whether Snowden was “a traitor or a hero”. It’s hard to answer it now, because the answer depends on one’s cognitive perspective and views, as well as how much key information they have or don’t have. Was the PRISM scandal a joint intelligence operation of the Chinese and Russian services to deal a propaganda blow to the USA internationally, maintaining a negative attitude of international societies towards America and reinforcing their belief that the USA are the major global threat and to complicate the relationships between Western countries, especially between Washington and West European governments – these are the questions that might remain unanswered for ever. Perhaps Snowden was only an informant bought by foreign intelligence services and used at the right moment chosen by them to harm the USA the most and show that one could thumb their nose at the USA without worrying about the consequences and divulge American government secrets to the cheers of international audience. Or perhaps Snowden is a young American idealist who wants to rescue his country and the world, and has created such an effect. Regardless of who he really is, his future is nothing to be envious of – he will either spend the rest of his life wandering between countries which do not defend the values that he stood up for, or, if Russia decides that he could be used to be exchanged for their own spy in American hands[17], they will return him to the USA, where he will not be spared merciless treatment. The dilemmas put to light by the PRISM scandal will accompany him for a long time.

[1] Np. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/politics/prism-collection-documents/?hpid=z1

[2]  Clapper later made public a few documents that are the legal basis for the American intelligence services: http://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/press-releases/191-press-releases-2013/908-dni-clapper-declassifies-and-releases-telephone-metadata-collection-documents

[5] http://edition.cnn.com/2013/07/22/politics/snowden-intel

[6]  This film element here can be evidence – just like the recent Oscar winner Argo – that it is not only the world of secret agents that becomes the object of interest of movie industry, it’s also the other way round, film industry catches the eye of secret services.

[7] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/01/edward-snowden-leaves-moscow-airport-live

[8] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/31/nsa-top-secret-program-online-data

[10]  I do not doubt that e.g. my activity as a person dealing with terrorism or even conducting web-based research for the purpose of this article did not escape the attention of the Big Brother – but I am far from expecting an American drone outside my door which will target my flat, which at the Afghan and Palestinian boarder is – sadly – a daily occurrence.

[11]  I’ve already written about this danger long before the PRISM scandal in a (niche) text available at: http://www.zeszyty-naukowe.wso.wroc.pl/images/2013/nr_1/04_machnikowski.pdf (str. 41–43) and in a commentary for „The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs”, vol. 22, no. 1/2013, p. 51.

[12]  What happened to Aleksander Litvinieko, the famous Russian whistleblower, is a pertinent example here.

[13] http://edition.cnn.com/2013/06/15/world/asia/hong-kong-snowden-protest/index.html?iref=allsearch

[14] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/10/edward-snowden-united-stasi-america

[15] http://wiadomosci.dziennik.pl/swiat/artykuly/433098,czy-edward-snowden-dostanie-pokojowa-nagrode-nobla.html

[16] http://www.tvn24.pl/wiadomosci-wroclaw,44/labuda-bujak-pinior-i-frasyniuk-o-snowdenie-oczekujemy-otoczenia-go-ochrona,341826.html