A conversation has started across America about Edward Snowden’s leak of classified information pertaining to Prism, a domestic-surveillance program carried out by the U.S. National Security Agency.
Mr. Snowden, a 29-year-old system administrator for defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, was working in Hawaii, where he says he was making about $200,000 a year before he abruptly left his job and live-in girlfriend, relocating to Hong Kong.
There he disclosed a collection of secret documents (his top-level security clearance had given him access) that appear to reveal the ease with which the U.S. government can and does access broad swaths of private data from countless people, including, in some cases, their own citizens.
The revelations have caused Americans to ask many questions.
“What? Wait. How’s that even legal? How the hell does a guy get to be 29, earn that much money and live in Hawaii with a hot girlfriend?” an online commenter demanded to know after media outlets ran pictures taken from the young woman’s blog.
“This is outrageous,” said a letter to the editor in an Ohio paper, following the news that quite possibly the details of the letter writer’s entire life were being pored over by a seemingly sinister government agency. “This is America. I wrote to my congressman. I mean, come on, I read somewhere she’s an acrobat. That crosses a line.”
“I have already called for an investigation,” the congressman responded. “I can’t even get the girl who teaches step class at my local gym to say hi to me in the parking lot, and, hellooo, I’m a congressman.”
To a number of journalists, however, the PRISM story raises other issues: Why, columnists across the country asked in exasperation, did this young woman post pictures of herself on the Internet and write her thoughts beside them? Surely, they declared – in prose set out directly under their full names, their pictures and their e-mail addresses – this woman, by expressing herself in a public forum, had renounced the right to any expectation of privacy, not only on her own behalf, but on behalf of all Americans now and in the future?
“Sure, at first glance, and later when used as my desktop background, it’s just a photograph of a girl making a fish face wearing sexy underwear,” one pundit said. “But clearly it’s also an invitation to the NSA to comb through the databases of tech giants culling information on everyone who’s ever corresponded with anyone outside America. Throw in some selfies in a tutu and you’re basically asking NSA agents to camp out in your living room and the living rooms of everyone in your generation.
“Why, just last week, I saw some guy tweet about his shawarma,” the pundit added – “it turns out he likes a lot of hot sauce. If he’s okay with disclosing that information to his 96 Twitter followers, then how can he complain when an NSA agent browses through his Google Docs folder?”
Another columnist took the point further: “The question Snowden’s actions raise in my mind is, how do we teach the youth of today that in being on Facebook, they surrender the right to all privacy? In much the same way that when my mother placed my birth announcement in the newspaper back in 1958, it was with the understanding that the editor could come and rifle through her underwear drawer.”
“My full name, address and telephone number are in the phone book, a copy of which is distributed to everyone in my hometown,” a letter writer to a local newspaper in Minnesota explained. “I understand that this entitles the government to implant a GPS system in my body and that if anyone breaks into my house, it was by invitation.” He concluded: “But none of this answers the question of whether Snowden’s girlfriend has my address. Please advise.”
“Does the promise of increased security from these kinds of surveillance programs justify giving governments virtually unchecked authority to both watch and know us?” pretty much no one asked in the deluge of questions that followed Mr. Snowden’s leak. But some tentative answers did emerge.
“The last thing we’d want Americans to take away from this,” a spokesperson for the Defence Department said, “is that girls don’t go for guys who respect non-disclosure agreements. We want to assure the many citizens who have expressed concern that this is not the case.”