This week, Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant, revealed that he had passed classified information on PRISM to the media before fleeing to Hong Kong.
According to The Guardian, Snowden revealed the information because "I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under."
Judging by his Guardian interview, Snowden has cast himself as a hero in a movie that may never play out. He refuses to leave the hotel room, keeps towels wedged against the door and fears that he will be kidnapped and returned to America on espionage charges -- or even murdered. He is, at least in his mind, the hero to the gormless public whose privacy has been so shamefully destroyed. Referring to his former high-paying job, his girlfriend and his home, he says, "I'm willing to sacrifice all of that because I can't in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."
Some have lauded Snowden a "hero," others a "traitor." In my mind, he is neither -- perhaps just misguided. Although he has repeatedly said that "this is not about me," he has clearly and categorically made it about himself -- revealing his identity as well as his impassioned reasons for committing an act just short of treason. The picture he paints of himself in his interviews is the epitome of what Generation Y is about -- anti-establishment, morally infallible, willing to sacrifice wealth and stability for "the right thing to do."
I say he's misguided, because in my mind, data privacy is a myth, not "an existential threat to democracy," as Snowden declared it. Mass surveillance, after all, is different from mass censorship -- amidst fears that the USA will soon become like China, where citizens have been woefully deprived of the ability to Google the phrase giant yellow duck. (And what a loss that was.)
The digital explosion of the last 10 years came upon us all with surprise -- and we are not ready for it. Legally, the waters are still murky. (Quick question: Do you even know under which country's laws your Dropbox is protected? Or your Facebook account?) But aside from that, I think we have proven -- as a society -- that we are not mature enough for it. At least, some of us aren't.
I've been quick to hit the "Unfriend" button more than once due to overshare. For example, I know that an acquaintance from high school (whom I've spoken to no one than twice) has left the mother of his children because she kissed his brother on New Year's Eve. And that the sister of a girl I went to kindergarten with is now homeless. And that an ex-colleague of mine hates his employees. And I can't help but wonder what my friends' children will think in 10 years when a Google search reveals that they were unwanted at first, or that it was public knowledge that they wet the bed for too long. Heck, if your cat has an overbite, he is merely a meme away from international stardom.
Snowden might care about our privacy -- but we don't.
A brilliant document by Lothar Determann of the Standford Technology Law Review illustrates the many myths we believe with regards to our legal right to privacy online. As he puts it "expectations of data privacy and privacy rights tend to be grossly exaggerated these days."
Facebook's App Center already received some flack because it supposedly encourages users to click away their right to keep their information private through clever design tricks, and their Graph Search pushes semi-private photographs and statuses even further into the open. Your friends, then, threaten your privacy too -- a simple tag can put the snapshot of you getting hammered at your high school reunion in the public domain, whether you like it or not.
Determann also shows that -- contrary to what you might think -- unlike a company that can protect information because it is of economic value, you do not own personal data about you. Nor, if social media is anything to go by, do we care. "The urge to be social and share information is what has had the greatest effect on privacy, not social media platforms," Determann says.
We care more about using social media than we do about privacy. Google's former CEO Eric Schmidt has even gone so far as to say that today's children will want their names changed when they turn 30, to "erase" their digital pasts. Or perhaps they won't care -- Facebook has created a tolerance for splashing embarrassing information to the world the likes of which we've never seen before.
My point is that if we are so careless about what is made public, can private surveillance of our private information really harm us? Have we really got anything to hide?
We are clamouring for Google to shut down paedophiles and trawl private accounts by any means necessary to catch them, but we do not ask how they are meant to distinguish the good guys from the bad without searching through all of our activities. In my mind, if it means shutting down a ring of paedophiles, I wave my right to anonymous browsing.
Remember Gilberto Valles? Morally his private chats should have remained private. However, the women whom he might have tortured, killed and eaten are probably glad his wife thought to hack his account.
If those Boston marathon bombers had been flagged for pulling information from the Al Qaeda site, or if the police sees fit to keep an eye on the fan base that expressed approval for what they did, would we be glad for it or outraged because their privacy was infringed upon?
The truth is that we are hypocritical about privacy. We sign up for sites where we can share too much publically, and then balk because someone might have seen it. We complain about advertising sites that track behavior to send us more relevant ads, rather than blast us with product information we can't use. And we complain that we are the victims of surveillance but insist that criminals' online activities should be subject to all of forms of hacking, as long as the end justifies the means.
Personally, the thought of some junior government techie having the ability to splash information about national security across the Web at will scares me a lot more than the thought of CIA operatives scrolling through my Facebook inbox.