Of Edward Snowden, Rupert Murdoch, ‘Digital Fortress’ And The Debate On Surveillance

By Sango Bidani:

Of late, Edward Snowden has been in the news for his expose regarding the spying and tapping of US citizens and citizens of the world. It brought back one of the images of United States as ‘The Big Brother’ who is watching us. Much like his predecessor in leaking the diplomatic cables, Julian Assange, Snowden is being forced to beg for asylum in various countries of the world, including India. He is charged with grievous crimes under the American law, and America is trying every trick in the book to get him back to America and try him for the charges. Through this article, I would like to analyze how his expose is part of a larger debate that has started emerging post the Rupert Murdoch scandal in Britain and the Radia Tapes in India. Also, I would like to see how Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress can be seen as prelude to this expose by Snowden.

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Edward Snowden is a former technical contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) and a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee. He had been waiting since 2008 to expose the intelligence surveillance programs followed by USA but decided to delay coming out with the expose as he trusted Barack Obama on delivering his promises. However, in 2012, when he noticed that Obama continued with his predecessor, George W. Bush’s policy, he decided to make public the surveillance programs because he wanted to protect the basic liberties and privacy of people in the US. He was working primarily with Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, which published a series of exposes based on Snowden’s disclosures in June 2013, where Snowden revealed information about a variety of classified intelligence programs, including the interception of US and European telephone metadata and the PRISM and Tempora internet surveillance programmes.

The questions that Snowden’s exposes cannot be seen in isolation, because the central issue that he raises has been a raging one ever since the Radia tapes scam broke out in India and the News of the World Scam, with Rupert Murdoch at the head, in Britain broke out. However, there was an essential difference between what happened in India and Britain. While both the Indian and the British controversies were isolated to phone tapping, Snowden’s expose focuses on surveillance on a much greater scale. The trials in the News of the World scam are still going on, and it would be interesting to see what kind of punishment is meted out to Rupert Murdoch and co. given the gravity of the situation that the phone tapping caused.

Interestingly, Dan Brown’s novel Digital Fortress talks precisely about this aspect of spying on America’s web addresses to avoid another 9/11 attack. In the novel, there is machine called Transltr, which decodes encrypted messages in clear text, so that the NSA can decide whether the clear text indicates any threat to the security of American citizens. Its specialty was that it could break any code very quickly. However, all of a sudden there is one code that it just cannot break for upto 18 hours, when the novel begins in right earnest. This alarms the technical experts and they fear that some virus has intruded their system or there has been some malfunction which they feel needs to be addressed quickly. Even in this novel, there is a person called Ensei Tankado, a former NSA employee who is displeased with his work and decides to devise an unbreakable code. It tracks the incredible journey of how they finally manage to decode the unbreakable code towards the end. It explores precisely the limits of electronic surveillance of the private citizens, which is one of the central reasons why Snowden decided to expose the American surveillance program.

The impact of the Snowden expose is that it shows the depths to which a country stoops in the name of gathering intelligence to prevent a major terrorist attack. And while some would have probably excused the increased surveillance in America on American citizens, given the fear that has entrenched their mind regarding another terrorist attack like the 9/11 attacks (though, I would like to believe that still many would have protested against this attack on personal privacy, which is what Snowden hinted at when he went public with his expose), the fact that Americans are not only spying on their own citizens but also European citizens, makes us ask the question as to whether it is ethically correct to spy on ordinary citizens and their conversations day in and day out, in the name of gathering information? Surely this is a question that seems to emerge as the central question from the Snowden expose, a prelude of which could be seen in Dan Brown’s novel, Digital Fortress.

I think it is important to address the question as to whether surveillance of ordinary citizens can be a way of preventing a terrorist attack from happening. It is true that we put a lot of pressure on government agencies to gather information before hand so that nothing untoward happens but then, are we really willing to pay the price? Or rather, do we think that it is completely unethical and should not be done, and that there are other ways of gaining intelligence to prevent a terrorist attack from taking place? It is a tricky question to answer but we need to find an answer to this question sooner rather than later.

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