Objection! Snowden is Not an Idiot

Mr. Novak of Gizmodo.com reckons that Edward Snowden, whistleblower to the NSA, is a ‘fucking idiot’. Why? Because Snowden believes that technology is the key to change, not policy. The irony, of course, being that Novak himself is the idiot.

So the root of Mr. Novak’s claim is this:

What got me so riled up about Snowden’s talk? He firmly believes that technology is more important than policy as a way to protect our liberties. Snowden contends that he held this belief when Obama was in office and he still believes this today, as Donald Trump is just two months away from entering the White House.

A mix of Trump doomsaying and technological downplaying.

Right out of the gate, it is important to note that technology is a more effective means of change. Our problem is that the government is spying on us. Can we really expect a ‘policy’ change to fix the issue? After all, it is pretty well established at this point that the NSA doesn’t follow its own rules. That, and public opinion has no effect on policy.

On the other hand, technology gets us immediate relief from the issue. By using technology like Signal or TOR, you protect yourself. But not only do you protect yourself, you harm the NSA directly. Like vaccines, programs like the NSA’s mass-collection have a sort of ‘herd immunity’ limit. Imagine if only two people in the world didn’t communicate using encryption. Would the NSA be able to justify mass-data collection if just the conversations of those two people specifically, would be useful? So using encryption technology doesn’t help just you, it helps everyone. It makes the spy programs demonstrably less effective.

This isn’t just theoretical, this has already happened. It wasn’t long ago that most websites used insecure HTTP for their communications. HTTP is vulnerable to data sniffing and man-in-the-middle attacks. Nowadays most sites at least offer, and many enforce, the use of HTTPS, which prevents both of said attacks (You’ll note the green lock in your address bar while on this site. We enforce high-security HTTPS). Mr. Novak would have us believe that we’d have been better off petitioning congress to prevent the NSA from sniffing our HTTP traffic.

Not to mention, even if we’d have been able to pull that off, they’d still be able to do it. Even when illegal to do the NSA often is called in to do its thing and then executes parallel construction to provide a plausible explanation of how the law enforcement could know what they couldn’t possibly have.

So yeah, technology is totally a more effective means of change. Attempts at policy such as the USA FREEDOM Act are criticized as ineffective, while technology indisputably gives us the higher ground. So yes, Mr. Novak, Snowden is totally justified in saying technology is a more effective means of change. “Policy can only get you so far”

And I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s promoting an idiotic worldview that’s completely devoid of answers for how to effectively combat the threat that Donald Trump and his neo-fascist goons pose to our democracy.

What’s funny is that presidents like Barack Obama, who upheld the status quo on NSA surveillance, and Donald Trump, who people believe will do that same, only serve to undermine Novak’s argument.

If you have a pro-surveillance president in office for four years, pushing anti-surveillance policy is not an effective strategy. In reality the opposite of what Novak implies is true, the time to push policy over technology was during the election, not now that Trump has been elected. Snowden is exactly correct, we have no hope of affecting surveillance policy in any meaningful way – our only strategy is to resist using technology. Trying to affect policy when the pro-surveillance ‘goons’ control the whitehouse is a non-starter.

Imagine if advocates of human rights held this same worldview fifty years ago. What would the American civil rights movement have looked like in the 1950s and 60s if you didn’t believe changes in policy mattered?

Aside from being an apples and oranges comparison (protection from private vs protection from government), this it completely wrong. We are doing the same exact thing, just in a different way. Just as Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat on that fateful day of 1955, by using encryption technologies we are refusing to yield to government surveillance.

How do we advance the cause of liberty around the world? Encrypt your devices, according to Snowden. Okay, now what? Well, Snowden’s tapped out of ideas if you get beyond “use Signal.”

Except asking “Now what?” is the wrong question. The real question here is “then what?”. If everyone encrypted their phones, there would be no need for policy change. The NSA would be rendered obsolete. Novak is acting as if “use Signal.” is just trivial advice. It isn’t – it has real tangible benefits.

Summary


Matt Novak is trying to cast that the use of technology to defend ourselves as something trivial. It’s the same kind of argument as “There is no point in owning a gun, guns are no match against the US military”. We can’t tangibly effect the NSA. They’re hidden, protected by hidden interpretations held up by secret courts. But we can protect ourselves. Each person who protects themselves makes the NSA surveillance less and less effective. Each business who shuts down rather than comply with an illegal warrant hurts the NSA.

Waiting around until the right people are in office is the opposite – entirely ineffective. We need to act now. Encrypting your phone isn’t just the selfish act of protecting oneself, but also aids in protecting everyone else.

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