Edward Snowden's Strange Quest for Internet Privacy

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Edward Snowden, the national security consultant who leaked details of secret government surveillance programs to the Guardian and the Washington Post, displays the classic characteristics of a whistle-blower.

First, he places himself in the middle of an event of world historical importance. ("I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in," he said, adding that the National Security Agency surveillance poses "an existential threat to democracy.")

Second, he places himself in opposition to an implacable bureaucracy either too corrupt or too numb to recognize the imminent danger he so clearly observes. ("I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions.")

Third, he possesses a steely determination steeped in righteousness. ("I'm willing to sacrifice all of that because I can't in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building.")

None of this constitutes a judgment on the value of the secrets Snowden has released, which may be catastrophically damaging to U.S. national security, an utterly benign call to collective conscience or, almost certainly, something in between.

But while Snowden behaves like a characteristic whistle-blower, it's clear he belongs to the Internet era. His ideology, like that of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, has been shaped by the medium that dominates his generation. Asked why he fled to Hong Kong, which, after all, is under the ultimate dominion of one of the world's more repressive regimes, he cited Hong Kong's unfiltered Internet. The Guardian reported that his laptop features a sticker from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a prominent Internet rights organization, and that he displays "intense passion" about "the value of privacy."

And there is the real conundrum. A computer nerd, a member of a networked generation that lives and socializes and organizes itself publicly online, is obsessed with privacy. Like "leaked secrets," "Internet privacy" is not an oxymoron to Snowden.

Is he looking to safeguard something sacred and unique that he believes has been violated by the government? Or is he looking for something that neither he nor any other 29-year-old American has truly ever had: A wall between himself and the world, with a door that locks.

Whatever his motivation, he is already finding allies through the medium that exposes all. "The response over the Internet," he said, "has been huge and supportive."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net