Snowden and Writers Reflect on Liberty
The Guardian has put together a collection short essays on liberty written by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden and some writers.
Snowden's contribution below:
Today, an ordinary person can't pick up the phone, email a friend or order a book without comprehensive records of their activities being created, archived, and analysed by people with the authority to put you in jail or worse. I know: I sat at that desk. I typed in the names.
When we know we're being watched, we impose restraints on our behaviour – even clearly innocent activities – just as surely as if we were ordered to do so. The mass surveillance systems of today, systems that pre-emptively automate the indiscriminate seizure of private records, constitute a sort of surveillance time-machine – a machine that simply cannot operate without violating our liberty on the broadest scale. And it permits governments to go back and scrutinise every decision you've ever made, every friend you've ever spoken to, and derive suspicion from an innocent life. Even a well-intentioned mistake can turn a life upside down.
To preserve our free societies, we have to defend not just against distant enemies, but against dangerous policies at home. If we allow scarce resources to be squandered on surveillance programmes that violate the very rights they purport to defend, we haven't protected our liberty at all: we have paid to lose it.
Ian McEwan, the author of the novels Atonement and Enduring Love, writes that the freedom of expression supports all other freedoms:
The idea of liberty grandly shelters many sorts of freedom, all of which, until the onset of modernity, had little definition in human aspirations. We reach easily now for concepts that once had no existence: the freedoms of universal franchise, of travel within and between countries, of assembly, association, worship, privacy, sexual equality and preference, of due process, of freedom from torture – the list goes on and is enriched by the proliferating concept of rights – of prisoners, patients, children, animals, of rights to clean water, food, a family life. Everywhere in the world, some or all of these remain contested.
But one freedom underpins the entire list. Without it, the aspirations clustered under liberty's umbrella could not have come into being. Every freedom we possess or are struggling to possess has had to be thought and talked and written into existence, which is why the rock on which liberty stands is freedom of expression. Democracy without it is a sham.
Playwright Tom Stoppard says that liberty taken to its extreme is anarchy:
Every act of regulation by authority is an erosion of liberty. That tells us what liberty is, and that you can have too much of a good thing. Liberty pushed to extreme is anarchy. Regulation pushed to extreme is dictatorship. Millions of words have been devoted to finding the balance, and the question remains open. The collective drift towards more regulation in the western liberal democratic model is driven by good intentions and by a mad dream of perfect fairness in which individual discretion and individual responsibility are intrinsically subversive.
Read the rest of the contributions here.