I've never met Edward Snowden, so please understand that I'm not trying to besmirch his character. And the truth is that I was thrilled when his disclosures hit. I was managing a professional-level VPN and traveling widely, warning people (who were often skeptical) about state-level surveillance. Edward Snowden vindicated me.
But it's now becoming clear that there is a serious down-side to the Snowden disclosures. I've been noticing it in my work at Cryptohippie and it has recently started to appear in scholarly literature.
For example, a new study from Oxford University (read about it here) shows that mass surveillance makes people less likely to read about surveillance topics online, and significantly so. Even page-viewing on Wikipedia has been affected.
A second study, from MIT, showed a "substantial empirical… chilling effect." The study goes on to say that this chilling effect seems related to an "increased awareness of government surveillance."
In other words, Snowden's proof of surveillance made people turn away from the entire discussion. And there's a reason for this.
Sooner Or Later, the Sword Must Be Seen
Again, I am not implying that this was Ed Snowden's intent, but the fact remains that mass surveillance is never more than half-effective until people know about it. Consider this, please:
Every ruling regime (republic, monarchy, whatever) is fully dependent upon their subjects obeying them: Without obedience, no government could survive.
The ruled, at some places and times more than others, will obey because they feel it's their duty. But the rest of the time, fear is required. How many Americans, for example, would pay more than minimal levels of income tax if they didn't fear the IRS?
So, given the current consensus that politicians are liars at best, instilling fear would seem necessary for any state to function.
The Snowden revelations made Joe and Jane Average face the threat of surveillance, often against their will. In other words, they were force-fed a new reason to be afraid. As a result, they pulled back from thinking on the subject, turning away from another class of things that might get them into trouble.
Civic propaganda aside, we all know that the true operating principle of government is mandatory compliance. We also know that 'mandatory' has sharp teeth; that's why we lower our voices when complaining about the IRS or the FBI.
So, now that NSA surveillance is undeniable – now that the sword is seen – Mr. and Ms. Average have closed themselves down that much further. That's what I'm referring to as the Snowden Effect.
Given What the Averages Know…
By no means do I mean to imply that Joe and Jane Average are stupid. They are not. My description of them as "average" is merely descriptive: in reality, these are the people who make the world work. But they are also intimidated, distracted, and poorly informed. They don't know that avoiding surveillance is even possible.
The problem, however, is even worse than ignorance: Snowden, or at least the people who spread his disclosures, have consistently delivered a backward message: that the solution lies not in technology, but in politics… and that's about the worst message they could have delivered.
Technological solutions can actually work. Pursuing a political solution, on the other hand, is like running through quicksand: no matter how much you thrash about, you never actually reach the other side. As a result, we're left with people who could escape the surveillance threat, but don't, because they treat politics as an effective tool.
But again, Joe and Jane are not stupid; they know that politics never really solves their problems, they just don't believe they have an alternative. And so, they try to live within ever-tighter limits.
Given that Averages are right to avoid government retribution, and given that they have no idea how to protect themselves, this choice is not irrational. Everything in their environment assures them that closing down a little more the safest option.
So, we have a hundred fifty million people – basically decent people – who are now aware of a new reason to fear. There is an escape from it, but since it's never authorized by politicians, broadcasters or Facebook, they're afraid to look at it. "Unauthorized" means "I could get in trouble," and they already have too many threats to deal with.
What, then, is to be done?
To begin with, people need to understand that they can protect themselves… that it's not particularly hard or expensive. (I've recently addressed the technical details, so I won't repeat them here.)
But even more essential than technology is to convince people they're better than the game they've been playing: That the system they're chained to isn't worthy of them.
These people have to see that they're being played: that they're being frightened on purpose; that the system is designed to bleed them dry; that the system couldn't survive if they were happy, confident and thoughtful.
Once Joe and Jane Average start trusting themselves and thinking for themselves, they'll take purposeful actions rather than being herded into conformity. And when that happens, this problem and many others will start fading away.
Please do whatever you can.
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If you've enjoyed Free-Man's Perspective or A Lodging of Wayfaring Men, you're going to love Paul Rosenberg's new novel, The Breaking Dawn.
It begins with an attack that crashes the investment markets, brings down economic systems, and divides the world. One part is dominated by mass surveillance and massive data systems: clean cities and empty minds… where everything is assured and everything is ordered. The other part is abandoned, without services, with limited communications, and shoved 50 years behind the times… but where human minds are left to find their own bearings.
You may never look at life the same way again.
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