Snowden revealed the surveillance state, and now it's time for him to get people to care. Will they?
Image: Livestream screengrab
Exactly a year to the day after Edward Snowden's initial leaks, the former National Security Contractor has gone from being whistleblower to an advocate for bottom-up revolution—the question is, are Americans even on his side?
The mass surveillance networks the United States and its allies have created has been in and out of the news over the past year, but it's unclear how much things have really changed. Any attempts at reform in Congress have been either killed or watered down to the point where they fundamentally change nothing. Official transparency reports about the NSA's actions and the US's secret surveillance courts remain completely opaque and functionally useless. We've already forgotten about half the things he revealed in the first place.
Most Americans oppose NSA mass surveillance, but what are they willing to do about it? Marches in Washington, DC, last fall were poorly attended, and, it's unclear how much the average citizen—or the average politician—truly cares about maintaining any sense of privacy in a world that's made so much functionally easier by acquiescing to the terms of giant corporations such as Google and Facebook, who have, at least on some level, helped facilitate the NSA's surveillance state.
But with presumably few blockbuster documents left to leak, few government overreaches and constitutional violations to disclose, Snowden has turned his sights to inspiring some sort of change—if the American people are willing to fight for it.
"A lot of this comes down to the fact that we don't like to rock the boat about things," Snowden told Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Barlow today about the prospects for reform today at New York City's Personal Democracy Forum. "A lot of people don't campaign against the things that do affect us, but don't seem to affect us directly."
And, that's where we sit at the moment. Snowden, of course, was teleconferenced in because he can't return to the United States without being prosecuted—but his goal, right now, is to rally the troops, so to speak. Whether those troops care enough to do anything remains to be seen.
"I hate the fact that you are practically alone in this. We're doing our best to proliferate your kind," EFF's Barlow said. "You're brave and you're not pretending to be asleep."
Snowden said that in order to put a true end to "turnkey tyranny," there needs to be "changes from the bottom up."
"If we don't step up and change the systems ourselves, we're the ones who have to deal with the consequences," he said.
That means electing people to federal positions who are "regular citizens," not career politicians, he said. It means refusing to re-elect incumbents on each house of Congress' intelligence panel who accept twice the amount of money from outside interests than everyone else in Congress. It means electing people who won't rewrite NSA reform bills under pressure from the White House at the last minute so that they mean nothing. It means electing a government who chooses to spend less than $75 billion on mass surveillance—more than it spends on education and science and health and the department of commerce.
"Do we need to be able to innovate? Or do we need to spy on what the German chancellor is doing?" Snowden asked. "Do we need to be spying on everyone in America? Or do we need to be educating everyone in America?"
Or, it means, as Barlow suggested, continuing to "pretend to be asleep." For the last year, Snowden has roused the media and a certain portion of the populous. His disclosures and, most importantly, the documents, made it easier to visualize exactly what the NSA does. Privacy die-hards could infer it before, and previous whistleblowers like Thomas Drake and Mark Klein told us what was going on, but Snowden proved it.
And yet, here we are. Greenwald's latest reports and Snowden's recent appearances are met more with sighs of indifference than with shouts of outrage.
"My biggest fear was no one would care, no one would talk about this. But the people in this room today, the conversation we're having, shows how wrong I was," Snowden said before he signed off. He said it to a group of die hards who paid several hundred bucks to be in the room, and, perhaps a few thousand more people watching the live stream online; the people who always have and always will care. "We're not going to turn the page on this overnight. Government doesn't turn the boat immediately, but the fact we're talking about this, that people care, shows we'll get a better and more accountable government."
Now, a year out, Snowden a cheerleader, not a whistleblower. He's a well-spoken, persistent one, but it very well may turn out that Americans, as a whole, feel like they have better things to worry about than their privacy. So far, a year later, the USS Status Quo—with the majority of America and its elected officials aboard—is barreling forward, full steam ahead.