A Whistleblower’s Predicament
Edward Snowden as many of you may know, is the man who leaked information about the covert activities of intelligence agencies in the US, particularly the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where he had worked for several years. The film provides its audience with a little background into Snowden’s personal and work life, as well as the events that led him to ‘blow the whistle’ on what he perceived as the ‘abuse’ of surveillance powers. Risking being charged and thrown in to jail under the Espionage Act (for “endangering” his country), he recounts his story about how he joined the intelligence service and his roles in these organisations.
There are so many legal issues that are brought to light in the movie. The obvious one I will be focussing on is the use or rather misuse of big data. The movie was centred on the misuse of data and the “unlawful” mass surveillance by intelligence agencies in the USA. While the misuse of data or the intrusion of privacy by covert surveillance are acts that may be deemed condemnable by some individuals, the ultimate question that springs to mind is whether the “freedom” of individuals is of more importance than the “security” of the nation or even the world.
Having had this conversation with colleagues and friends, the common response is usually, “I have nothing to hide, so intelligence agencies can do what they need to do to ensure my safety and protection”. Some were of the view that, morally, it is wrong for intelligence services to overstep the boundary of power and privilege entrusted to them. Snowden himself was of the view that mass surveillance was a tool for economic and social control; and that ‘terrorism’ was only an excuse to make the public think that to ensure our security, we had to sever some of our freedom rights.
The main concerns projected throughout the film, are the uncertain future of whistleblowers; and secondly, where the line can be drawn on mass surveillance, if any. The rise and sophistication of web means that, data, no matter where it is derived from or the environment it is confined in, can be a tool for destruction if it ends up in the wrong hands or at the other end of the spectrum, serve as a tool for protection.
Applying these concepts at national level, the UK published a draft of the Investigatory Powers Bill 2015. Similar to the events that unravelled in ‘Snowden’, the Bill seeks to create a new statutory basis for data retention and grant new powers to allow investigatory bodies’ access to the data as intelligence to counter terrorism and issues of national security. Parliament was left with the task of trying to strike the balance between upholding and individual’s privacy rights, against the security of the state and democracy.
Of course, as expected the government has faced enormous backlash about the implementation of the Investigatory Powers Bill, however in November 2016, Parliament approved the implementation of this bill and could become law once granted Royal Assent.
It is true that in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Berlin, Istanbul, Paris and the imminent terrorist threat facing the UK, the idea of granting intelligence services the necessary powers to prevent serious crimes including terrorism and the sexual exploitation of children now seems somewhat reassuring. The ultimate question is whether the price of security is worth it?