I spent an extraordinary few hours earlier today, seeing Edward Snowden, live from Russia via Google Hangout, address and answer questions at the "Why Privacy Matters" conference that took place at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College in Annandale, New York (thanks to my friend, author David Brin, who delivered a lecture at the conference yesterday, for the invitation to this event). The day was beautiful and cool, the Fall foliage peak, but what made the day truly exceptional was what Snowden said - the kinds of things that, well, offer grounds for a little hope for our species after all, or, if you already had such hope, a little more.
There were lots of quotable moments. Snowden thinks all the candidates in the first Democratic debate on Tuesday, save the one (Lincoln Chafee) who didn't want to see him brought before our criminal justice system, lacked political "courage". Yet he was heartened that, unlike in 2013, when many politicians were quick denounce him as a "traitor," no one on stage uttered that word on Tuesday. Snowden (of course) spoke approvingly of the new drone leaks ("The Drone Papers"), and correctly sees that far more incursions on our privacy have occurred under Obama than during George W. Bush's administration. And he was unafraid to call out his host, Russia, for its own violations of human rights.
But what most struck me about Snowden, and made this event so memorable, was his philosophic depth. In a phrase, he thinks that human values, decided upon by individuals, can be more compelling of our loyalty than any laws. Yeah, I know this can push us down the slippery slope of anarchy as everyone does what they want to do regardless of the law. And I know that such a principle can easily be used against a progressive law that we support, such an anti-discrimination ruling or statute. But the general principle still holds. The government, which already holds so many cards, including a monopoly of power (as Snowden also aptly noted), cannot always be the ultimate authority in our lives.
Certainly our right to some small bit of privacy, a piece of our lives not available to governmental scrutiny, would be one place in which human judgement should be superior to governmental fiat. Snowden's leaking of classified information was designed to expose our government's massive incursion on our privacy. He committed an illegal act to lay bare our government's activities which, legal or not, are intrinsically at odds with one of the very bases of our humanity, our need to have at least a little time off the screen.
Should Snowden come back to the United States to stand trial for this? He allowed that he would, if he could explain in open court what the government was and is still doing to its citizens. I admire his willingness to do this but don't know that I would do the same, were I in a similar position. I've always been a firm believer in the precept that a government which acts immorally loses its claim on us to follow its laws. Had I been visited by Crito on the eve of my death sentence in Ancient Athens, I would have jumped on that ship in the harbor in a New York minute, and left the hemlock to those who immorally sentenced me to drink it, democracy or not.
In some ways, we've come a long way since then. We not only are constantly surveilled by the government, but have an increasing power to turn the lenses back on the government, record what it might be illegally doing, and therein begin to hold it to better account. David Brin has been talking about this kind of "sousveillance" (viewing from below) for years - I'll in effect be talking about it at Annenberg in Philadelphia in December in my Eye in the Sky in the Hand: How Video Cameras in Smart Phones are Finally Beginning to Bring Police to Justice lecture - and it's part of Snowden's optimism about the future.
Whether it's police killing innocent African-Americans, or the NSA attempting to erase our privacy and therein killing our freedom, these governmental activities deserve our peaceful but staunchest opposition. Hats off to Edward Snowdon for stepping up and acting on this, and articulating the profound issues embedded in his action so eloquently today.