Edward Snowden has been named the 2013 Lifeboat Foundation Guardian Award winner in recognition of his quest to get the U.S. government to be transparent about the surveillance it is engaging of its citizens. It is worth noting that no government is being transparent in how it does surveillance so this issue is relevant to all countries.
While it is unusual to honor someone that the U.S. government has targeted for life imprisonment (or worse), it is worth noting that thanks to Snowden’s revelations, many mainstream companies are now concerned about surveillance being done in secret. For example, AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo just wrote an open letter to the U.S. President and members of Congress that said, “We urge the U.S. to take the lead and make reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight.”
As a large and diverse organization, the Lifeboat Foundation has taken the middle ground in the surveillance debate believing that our balanced SecurityPreserver program that includes both surveillance and sousveillance is the best way to handle the threat of existential threats that will soon be in the hands of small groups of people. Our David Brin’s The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? is a good description of what we hope to achieve.
Of course, many of our members are against surveillance and some probably think the U.S. government is not being invasive enough with its surveillance. But without knowledge of what the U.S. government is doing, it is impossible for its citizens to debate the best possible course of action.
Why is the surveillance debate important to the Lifeboat Foundation?
1) Surveillance could prevent serious dangers.
2004 Guardian Award winner Martin Rees said in his book Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future In This Century — On Earth and Beyond: “Science is advancing faster than ever, and on a broader front… But there is a dark side: new science can have unintended consequences; it empowers individuals to perpetrate acts of megaterror; even innocent errors could be catastrophic. The ‘downside’ from twenty-first century technology could be graver and more intractable than the threat of nuclear devastation that we have faced for decades.”
He went on to say “If there were millions of independent fingers on the button of a Doomsday machine, then one person’s act of irrationality, or even one person’s error, could do us all in.”
2) No civilization seems to have survived these dangers.
In The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, 2005 Guardian Award Winner Ray Kurzweil devoted 25 pages to “On the Intelligent Destiny of the Cosmos: Why We Are Probably Alone in the Universe”. (Pages 342–367.)
3) While surveillance in the U.S. is quite extensive, it seems to be remarkably poor at stopping terrorism. The Fort Hood shooting,Boston Marathon bombings, and Washington Navy Yard shooting are some recent examples of this. Until we know how the U.S. does surveillance, we will have no chance to fix this problem.
It is possible that since the U.S. government doesn’t trust its citizens to even know what surveillance is being used that this discourages citizens from feeling like they are a valued part of society. Such “unvalued” citizens may feel their input doesn’t matter and therefore are discouraged from reporting suspicious activities.
4) If all countries were transparent about what surveillance they engaged in, then we could compare the outcomes to the surveillance being done and then determine which balance of privacy works best.
5) Excessive surveillance could lead to a 1984-type society that would not only be unpleasant but could give the government the power to do terrible things that become existential threats. Secret surveillance can easily become excessive surveillance.
Snowden enlisted in the United States Army Reserve as a Special Forces recruit in 2004 but did not complete his training due to breaking both of his legs in a training accident. He said he wanted to fight in the Iraq War because he “felt like he had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression”.
His next employment was as a National Security Agency (NSA) security guard for the Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland. He then joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to work on IT security.
Snowden left the CIA to work for Dell where he did contract work inside an NSA facility. His final job was working for Booz Allen Hamilton at the NSA Kunia Regional SIGINT Operations Center in Hawaii.