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Let Edward Snowden Remind You Why Mass Surveillance Still Matters

Melissa Michael

12.09.16 3 min. read

It’s been over three years since Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA, but in the grind of daily life, it’s easy to forget why the issue of mass surveillance is still an important one. In a recent Vice News episode, “State of Surveillance,” Snowden hit on three points that help boil the issue down in pretty simple terms. As the new Snowden movie opens this weekend, it’s a good time to share his quotes – for anyone who needs a reminder of why the issue of mass surveillance still matters.

Why we should care about mass surveillance in the first place:

Because you never know what will happen…or how your data could one day be used against you.

“Even if you trust the government today, what happens when it changes?” Snowden says. “Suddenly, everybody’s vulnerable to this individual. And the systems are already in place. What happens…when eventually, we get an individual who says ‘You know what? Let’s flip that switch and use the absolute full extent of our technical capabilities to ensure the political stability of this new administration.'”

Snowden says we need to figure out if we want the future to be a “quantified world” where everywhere we go and everyone we talk to is indexed, analyzed, stored, and used, maybe even against us.

“Or will we recognize the danger of that and embrace the fact that people should have space to make mistakes without judgment, to have sort of the unconsidered thought or conversation with your friend? But if that was recorded in a database, where you say, ‘I think Donald Trump should be kicked off a cliff,’ and Donald Trump becomes president someday and everybody who said that ends up getting thrown off a cliff, that’s a very dangerous world.”

The whole point of mass surveillance programs is to catch terrorists. Here’s why Snowden says that doesn’t work:

Because when you collect everyone’s data, you miss the stuff that matters most. Snowden:

“I was working at the NSA during the Boston Marathon bombings investigation. As it was playing on the news, myself and colleagues were in the cafeteria. We turned to each other and said, ‘I’ll bet you anything we already knew about these guys in the databases.’ And in Paris, I’m certain the same conversation happened.

“This is really the legacy of mass surveillance – the fact that when you’re watching everyone, you know who these individuals are, they’re in the banks. You had the information you needed to stop, to prevent even the worst atrocities. But the problem is when you cast the net too wide, when you’re collecting everything, you understand nothing. We know for a fact that (mass surveillance) is not effective for stopping terrorist attacks and it never has been.”

He cites two White House-appointed independent commissions that were assigned to review mass surveillance programs after his disclosures. Both found that mass surveillance has not stopped terrorist attacks and both recommended these programs be ended.

If they’re ineffective, then why don’t politicians stop these programs?

Because no one wants to shoulder the blame for new terror attacks, even if the blame is misplaced.

“It’s clear that the public opposes the majority of these policies. And yet politicians, because the word terrorism is involved, they can’t justify being the one to stand up (against surveillance policies) because they know there will be another terrorist attack.”

If they lead the charge to stop the policies, when the next attack comes, they know they’ll be blamed by their political opponents, Snowden says. “And they’re right. Of course their political opponents will do this, it’s the easiest thing in the world to do. And unfortunately it’s quite effective. Because we live in a time where the politics of fear are the most persuasive thing on the table.”

Watch the Vice News episode yourself to get in the mood for the movie.


Image courtesy of askyog,

Melissa Michael

12.09.16 3 min. read


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