On April 17th, Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who exposed the NSA scandal, will be a guest (via online broadcast) of the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, during a special event organized by CILD.
He will be joined by Laura Poitras, who won an Oscar for Citizenfour, the documentary based on Snowden, and by Ben Wizner, Snowden’s attorney, who works for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Moderator and journalist Fabio Chiusi tells us about the debate and why it is important to talk about privacy and security in Italy.
In the Italian public’s perception, Datagate may seem like only a memory.
In reality, however, the effects of the scandal concerning the mass digital surveillance carried out by the NSA and its allies, as well as the substance of it, are at the core of the global debate on what will happen to our privacy and our freedoms on the Internet.
After the Pulitzer, after the Oscar, Edward Snowden’s actions – divulging classified documents, exposing himself – continue to resonate in public debate, starting from the USA and Great Britain. In both countries, the revelations of the former NSA contractor have triggered an unprecedented degree of transparency in intelligence operations, and a demand for further transparency – even in the recent, watered-down parliamentary report in the UK – in surveillance regimes that ought to be reformed, however poorly. The debate is well alive.
Without any doubt, it is also dangerous. When David Cameron calls for a ban on encryption, and Barack Obama defends it half-heartedly, if at all, our thoughts go to China asking for the same thing, not to the leaders of the free world.
It is, however, thanks to Snowden that giants like Apple and its million smaller competitors can now provide better, ideally unhackable encryption: after the scandal, “NSA-proof” products have found a good market. What is more, it is thanks to Snowden that we can only even conceive of some sort of collective resistance, however scattered and difficult, to the monster of global surveillance. Which is always a law-abiding monster, at least in the very detailed reports of its defenders, and therefore acceptable, normal. With some excesses to trim, sure, but still normal.
What Snowden made us understand, actually, is that we need to revolutionize our ideas on the relationship between security and freedom on the internet.
We need to reverse the perspective, not to adjust the view: mass surveillance is not effective, it does not work, it entails systematic abuse of the rights of millions of innocents and, by consequence, a society based on suspicion, tip-offs and total transparency of the ruled towards their rulers and the corporations of the new petroleum: our data.
If all of this is true, Snowden suggests, we need to find the courage to try and imagine a different mode of cohabitation, a different relationship between what can be legitimately known about us and what must be kept hidden from governments and those who want to turn our preferences into targeted ads.
This is the fundamental moral of his story: we need to oppose the idea that an intelligence that seeks to monitor everything, to know everything, is compatible with democracy – any idea of democracy – in the digital age.
We have also seen this in the latest revelations about total surveillance of metadata and contents in the communications of entire countries by New Zealand. Not that they needed it: it was just the price to pay in order to sit at the table of the “Five Eyes” with Great Britain, the US, Australia and Canada (where another scandal broke out).
Knowing everything to emulate, to be with those who want to know everything. It is a crazy logic, the same one behind the words of those who, like the director of the FBI, would install a backdoor in each and every tech tool that we use, allowing spies to be privy even to our best-protected communications.
The same logic applied by those who punish hacktivists with the harshest sentences only to surround themselves with state hackers who sabotage and tamper with computers, routers and virtually any product or network that needs tampering with, even for purposes that often have little or nothing to do with the war on terror or the safeguarding of “national security”.
We saw it happen after Charlie Hebdo: these are the magic words justifying any kind of repressive, censorial intervention. If we are now able to recognize them better, and sooner, maybe it is also thanks to Snowden.
And if reforms have so far been late in coming, and public opinion often evinces a certain resignation to forever losing its digital privacy, now that Wikipedia has joined the activists in their legal battle against the NSA, the protest movement may still raise its voice, and achieve some concrete results.
An historic one has already been achieved: Snowden’s documents are clearly and obviously of public interest. This may sound trite to those who are still refusing to support Snowden – that is, basically every Western government. And Snowden is not going home. He cannot: a law as old as 1917 would subject him to a show trial, a rerun of the one inflicted on Chelsea Manning, with some minor changes. Besides, there is no need for martyrs: there is a need for good laws, laws that will truly protect whistleblowers, starting with those who, like Snowden, have acted clearly in the public interest.
Because, without Snowden, we would not have had the debate that started two years ago, and that we are still having. And who knows what kind of internet we would be living in.
Fabio Chiusi is a freelance journalist (Repubblica, L’Espresso, Wired) and blogger who regularly writes about censorship and surveillance on the internet and the complex relationship between digital technologies, politics and society. He has an MSc in Philosophy of Science from the London School of Economics, and is a Fellow of the NEXA Center for Internet & Society.
He is the author of Critica della democrazia digitale. La politica 2.0 alla prova dei fatti, which was published in 2014 by Codice Edizioni.