Edward Snowden Isn't Right About Everything

By Matt Novak on at

Today, Edward Snowden is wrong about almost everything. Yes, he’s a patriot, and yes, I believe that what he did in 2013 to reveal dangerous elements of our surveillance state was important and commendable. But Snowden is completely oblivious to the challenges that we face as we move into the year 2017—a perilous time for America, to say the least.

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of attending the Real Future Fair in Oakland, which featured some amazing speakers like Mae Jamison, the first American woman of colour in space. It was a fascinating conference, but there was one speaker that made me incredibly frustrated: Edward Snowden, who joined us in Oakland via teleconference robot from Russia. 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 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. But it doesn’t make him right, no matter who’s in office.

“If you want to build a better future, you’re going to have to do it yourself. Politics will take us only so far. And if history is any guide, they are the least effective means of seeing change we want to see,” Snowden said on stage in Oakland from Russia, completely oblivious to how history might actually be used as a guide.

Snowden spoke about how important it is for individuals to act in the name of liberty. He continually downplayed the role of policy in enacting change and trotted out some libertarian garbage about laws being far less important than the encryption of electronic devices for the protection of freedoms around the world.

“Law is simply letters on a page,” Snowden said. It’s a phrase that’s still ringing in my ears, as a shockingly obtuse rejection of civilised society and how real change happens in the world.

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.” The closest he got to advocating for anything involving policy change was when he told people they could donate to the Freedom of the Press Foundation which, it should probably be noted, he currently works for.

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? If you truly think that laws are irrelevant and that securing your communications from government surveillance is the only force for liberty, then your biggest problem with the FBI’s persecution of Martin Luther King Jr. was that they tapped his phone lines. King’s use of his phone was a means to an end, just as the FBI’s surveillance of King was a means to an end. The end, as far as civil right leaders were concerned, was enacting policy. Shielding your communications from government surveillance is merely a tactic to allow you to operate and organise without government interference. Encryption doesn’t fight against injustice all by its lonesome.

What about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a crowning achievement of the civil rights movement that brought about real change to a system built on systemic racism? The Civil Rights Act didn’t end racism, and it, along with its legal cousin the Voting Rights Act of 1965, are currently being butchered beyond recognition after a devastating Supreme Court decision. But the answer to progressive losses in the courts isn’t “encrypt your phone.” The answer is to bring about policy changes through local and national laws to ensure that human rights are protected. Encrypt your data all you like — it’s an important, if admittedly flawed, way to help organise and protest. (Privacy tools like Tor are leaking like a sieve and there are a hundred different ways for the state to access your communications even if you have the most advanced opsec in the world.) But don’t tell me that policy doesn’t matter.

If you earnestly put forward this idea that fighting for policy is somehow irrelevant and that laws are “simply letters on a page” you have very little to offer modern society. You’re surrendering to living in a fundamentally broken world and are ignoring the methods by which history actually evolves to meet the needs of a civilised society. Every time someone like Snowden says “encrypt your phone” our response must be, “okay, now what do we do?” And Snowden doesn’t have an answer.

“Technology works differently than law. Technology knows no jurisdiction,” Snowden said via video conference in Russia, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a change in policy would be necessary for his return to the United States, not stronger encryption of his communications.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve thought Snowden was leading Americans astray. In the excellent documentary Citizenfour, about Snowden’s leaks and the immediate fallout, I thought he said some pretty idiotic things as well.

“I remember what the internet was like before it was being watched,” Snowden said in the documentary. As a man in his early 30s, he’s either lying or ignorant of history. Either one wouldn’t surprise me at this point, to be honest.

The internet has always been monitored by the state. It was created by the fucking US military and has been monitored from day one. Surveillance of the internet wasn’t invented after 11 September 2001, no matter how many people would like to believe that to be the case. To claim that there was this magical time when the internet was a “frontier” is a tragic misreading of history. Much like myths of the Wild West, there was no unpopulated “frontier” online. There were plenty of people there first. And in the case of the internet, those people were part of the military and intelligence gathering community. They all, quite literally, built the internet.

In Oakland, Snowden also addressed his tweet from 21st October in which he said that, “There may never be a safer election in which to vote for a third option.” Snowden told us that he more or less stands by his tweet and that anything else “freezes us into a dynamic of ‘you must always choose between two bad options’” which is a “fundamentally un-American idea.”

This might be the “glass half full or glass half empty” for our times. People like Snowden subscribe to the belief that the lesser of two evils is still evil. I subscribe to the belief that the lesser of two evils is still less evil. When you’re talking about someone as dangerous to democracy as Donald Trump and the fucking knobs he’s surrounding himself with who are more loyal than they are intelligent, these competing worldviews matter.

Not that it’s profoundly significant, but I should probably acknowledge again that I believe Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified national security information to journalists was a good thing. Whenever the government is conducting operations that infringe on our rights, it is always the right and proper thing for people to speak out against it. But Snowden’s whistleblower activities are largely irrelevant to the opinions that he’s spouting today. And I believe that almost everything I heard him say on stage in Oakland was truly idiotic.

If you’re looking for NSA docs about the surveillance state, Snowden is your man. If you’re looking for guidance on how to make the world a more just place, we have to look elsewhere and listen to people who believe in the only thing that can possibly influence the world for the better: radical changes in policies that touch the lives of everyone around the globe.