John Stephenson is a politics student at Lancaster University
The United States of America is not one for letting things go. So when Edward Snowden – a 29-year old CIA employee seconded to the NSA – leaked classified information on highly-secretive surveillance systems, he will have known that his days of anonymity and free-living were numbered.
Previous whistle-blowers such as Russ Tice, who claimed the NSA were involved in illegal wire-tapping, faced substantial criticism and personal attacks from the conservative media within the states, while Bradley Manning, the US soldier who gave sensitive information to Wikileaks, faces a life sentence.
Nevertheless, the information leaked by Snowden is arguably scarier. In particular, his remarks on the NSA’s PRISM system will be met with revulsion from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who have spoken out on issues relating to surveillance.
Since its inception in 2007, the system is said to have attained information on millions of individuals through the direct access it enjoys to online resources such as Facebook, YouTube and Google.
What is peculiar, however, is that Snowden’s disclosure has received a mixed response. The resolute tone of those who will stand alongside their beloved homeland in defiance against such ‘traitors’ is still easy to hear, yet their voices are dampened by many Americans who defend Snowden’s actions.
Campaign for Liberty have been unyielding in their support – their founder Ron Paul quick to label Snowden a “hero”. According to Time magazine, some 54 per cent of the US population feel Snowden did the right thing; yet this is counterbalanced by the 53 per cent who believe he should be prosecuted for his actions.
To speculate, it appears plausible that Americans are fundamentally split when it comes to supporting measures taken in the name of ‘protecting American interests.
Yet to be realistic for a second, the dictum ‘you cannot have your cake and eat it’ holds true in this case. Global terrorism is a very real threat, and the advent of the internet has only provided a new method of communication for those who seek to detract from the liberty that American society entails.
To make matters worse, it is cyber-terrorism that represents one of today’s greatest threats. According to a recent survey of 600 elite businesses, the FBI found that virus attacks remained the number one source of revenue loss.
To a skilled programmer or hacker the cyber-world represents a cheaper, easily accessible alternative to tradition methods and makes conventional difficulties such as international borders and identity obsolete.
Ironically enough, although the world continues to become an increasingly globalised, techno-savvy community, studies suggest that cyber terrorism still maintains a fundamental link to real-world, corporeal violence. Timings of cyber-attacks show a clear correlation to episodic violence in conflict zones such as the Balkans and the Gaze strip.
With this in mind it is important that the US does not avert its gaze away from foreign policy.
Problems arise, however, when dealing with groups so far removed from Western thinking that any concessions remain out of the question. Equally, it may be the very countries that US diplomats speak of warmly which commit such hostile behaviour. The NSA itself admits that it faces attacks from around 150,000 ‘cyber spies’ every single day, backed by a Chinese military dedicated to ‘stealing secrets’.
Possibilities for a new approach are not in short supply. With the legality of US intelligence networks’ activity under serious scrutiny of late, it may be time to strengthen the tone of condemnation against cyber-attacks.
Obama seems to have made some headway, addressing the issue in a recent summit meeting with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. However little progress was made and one can only speculate that the Chinese felt slighted at the Obama administration – itself rumoured to have drawn up a list of potential targets for cyber-attacks – lecturing them on international conduct.
If no parties are willing to concede ground, then maybe the loss of liberty is the price we have to pay for a highly integrated global community. We can only hope the US electorate remembers the PRISM fiasco when the 2016 primaries commence.