In written testimony to the European Union (EU), Edward Snowden explained in patient, well-written, detailed prose exactly why what the NSA is doing is so dangerous. Snowden reveals himself an articulate writer, and through that moves from mere whistleblower into an almost philosophical role. His testimony deserves your full read, so you should best stop right here and just go read it.
For those who prefer some highlights, with commentary, please follow me deeper down the rabbit hole.
The suspicionless surveillance programs of the NSA, GCHQ, and so many others that we learned about over the last year endanger a number of basic rights which, in aggregate, constitute the foundation of liberal societies.
The first principle any inquiry must take into account is that despite extraordinary political pressure to do so, no western government has been able to present evidence showing that such programs are necessary. In the United States, the heads of our spying services once claimed that 54 terrorist attacks had been stopped by mass surveillance, but two independent White House reviews with access to the classified evidence on which this claim was founded concluded it was untrue, as did a Federal Court.
...There are indications of a growing disinterest among governments for ensuring intelligence activities are justified, proportionate, and above all accountable. We should be concerned about the precedent our actions set.
Snowden understands that the programs he revealed are fundamentally in conflict with the very basis of a just society; the two cannot co-exist. When the government turns its full resources to spy, without suspicion or reason or legitimate purpose, on its full citizenry (including the Senate, charged with in theory a check-and-balance role on the executive), a fundamental shift occurs: the Government is no longer of the People, it has made the People its enemy. The opposite follows by course. Deceiving your enemy is part of any war.
I know the good and the bad of these systems, and what they can and cannot do, and I am telling you that without getting out of my chair, I could have read the private communications of any member of this committee, as well as any ordinary citizen. I swear under penalty of perjury that this is true.
These are not the capabilities in which free societies invest. Mass surveillance violates our rights, risks our safety, and threatens our way of life. If even the U.S. government, after determining mass surveillance is unlawful and unnecessary, continues to operate to engage in mass surveillance, we have a problem.
Indeed we do Edward. The problem is that following the events of that one day -- 9/11 -- America went, quite simply, insane. For a short period of time, nearly every American, naw, let's all look at our shoes and feel ashamed, because EVERY American agreed that anything that even might make us feel safe again was OK. We went out and bought duct tape when told a gas attack might happen, and we eyed our neighbors cautiously.
But as the dust literally settled, the government realized that they could cite 9/11 as justification forever, for anything. Evil people took this opening to slip a still-metastasizing national security state into the fabric of our lives, then enlarge it to cover the globe. Snowden in his testimony acknowledges that the NSA's reach covers billions of people. I am certain that if we could ever catch those anti-freedom figures and their helpers in a private moment, they would all say: "If we knew it was going to be this easy to create an omnipotent executive, we would have done it years ago."
Whether we like it or not, the international norms of tomorrow are being constructed today, right now, by the work of bodies like this committee. If liberal states decide that the convenience of spies is more valuable than the rights of their citizens, the inevitable result will be states that are both less liberal and less safe.
There is the most important sentence of all: the international norms of tomorrow are being constructed today. Because if this devolution of our world, our freedoms and our privacy is allowed to remain, it will grow, and that will be the end of that. As Snowden warned earlier, no one in elementary school today will ever know what privacy is, and will grow up in a police state that envelopes their lives in total. They will never hold a private thought, never share a private communication, never wake to a place where they are not on someone's video screen. Snowden is clear that we are at the last Y in the road.
The final words are Snowden's:
If you want to help me, help me by helping everyone: declare that the indiscriminate, bulk collection of private data by governments is a violation of our rights and must end. What happens to me as a person is less important than what happens to our common rights.
Now really, go read Snowden's full testimony.