Edward Snowden’s revelations changed the world, awakening us to a profound but insidious peril. Since last June when his first accounts of National Security Agency mass surveillance became public, we have learned how vulnerable our everyday digital communications are to government surveillance, and how much governments want to collect our information, no matter how trivial or unrelated it may be to any tangible national security threat. Governments – and corporations – are learning of the public’s distress at this mind-boggling invasion of privacy that threatens a range of human rights for people everywhere. And people everywhere are demanding profound change and restoration of their privacy and freedoms.
The public value of Snowden’s actions has been enormous. So it is distressing that no country but Russia has been willing to hear Snowden’s claim for asylum. In the United States, he has no whistleblower defense to the very serious charges laid against him, despite the public interest value of his actions. Russia has granted him temporary asylum, and appears open to extending this status. Other countries concerned by the potential of surveillance to destroy rights and democratic freedoms should open their doors as well.
There has been more action on surveillance reform in the United States than in many other countries, but the reforms have still not gone far enough, particularly in protecting the rights of non-Americans outside the country. International initiatives to strengthen the right to privacy in the digital age are also extremely important. Other countries should act swiftly, or the lack of trust in government and technology industries will otherwise wither the potential of the Internet as a medium of communication, commerce, and realization of human rights.
It is ironic that of all the issues raised by the Snowden revelations, the one getting the least attention seems to be the protection of national security and intelligence sector whistleblowers like Snowden. In the US, extremely heavy charges are levied against those who leak government secrets, and whistleblowers in intelligence and national security jobs lack both legal rights to defend themselves against retaliation and legal defenses to criminal prosecution. Many other countries recognize the public value of some leaks to increase government accountability, and it is scandalous that the US, a strong advocate of press freedom globally, has failed in this area.