All I know about NSA super-surveillance I learnt from The Good Wife. Well. That’s only partly a lie. Actually, attending Think Inc.’s Evening with Edward Snowden, I learnt that the watching of a person’s every movement through metadata collection is at once much more banal than that TV show makes out, and much more chilling. More importantly, I heard a clear-eyed entreaty on the meaning of privacy, why it is essential to a free society, and why its violation should offend all citizens.
Edward Snowden is unassuming. He is not bombastic; he explains everything in careful detail. This is no made-for-memes TED talk. He is quietly sincere as he deconstructs the nitty gritty of what mass surveillance actually entails. We hear via satellite projected onto a huge screen, from someone whose nine-to-five this was for years, a list of the minutiae of the technological connection that maps your existence — your movements, your communication, your associates. As he says: ‘Everything you did in your life, without the details, without the colour’. From precisely where and with whom we woke up, to all of our movements from that point on, if you are under surveillance your life will be laid bare. And this is where Snowden makes his big point: You don’t even have to feel interesting to be of interest the watchers. They never need to disclose their reasons for dissolving one of your fundamental rights.
The public figure of Edward Snowden — what he means to the world — is every conspiracy theorist’s wet dream. But this is no theory, it’s cold hard fact, and not something Australians can simply brush off as the Americans overdoing things again. ‘Five Eyes’ is the name given to the secretive intelligence-sharing alliance of governments, and Australia is one of them. Everything that hit the fan when Snowden’s information went public applied to us as well; our privacy, and our government’s disregard of it.
What constitutes privacy? What does it mean to have it violated? During the metadata media storm here in Australia — George Brandis gawping like a fish, etc. etc. — some politicians had us on with the idea that privacy is a non-issue for those with nothing to hide. Snowden cracks this apart in one breath, arguing that privacy is a right, essential to our existential freedom, to the freedom of journalists, of dissidents and critics. Without it we have a society with poison under the skin.
Ironically, privacy should also be a right for whistle blowers, yet Snowden seems almost blasé (or just resigned?) about the fallout on his personal life. Now, in his limited life in Russia, he feels he is freer than anywhere else. He describes what contact he has had with the U.S. government: he responded to their demands he return home and face the courts by saying ‘Only if I can talk freely’. Their response? ‘We promise not to torture you’.
Rosie is a Perth-to-Melbourne transplant who misses the feeling of rain bringing happiness. She enjoys tinkering with plants, reading Oliver Sacks, and sleeping at wildly inappropriate times.