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Following Snowden

Special edition in Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society

Edward Snowden’s global surveillance disclosures shook the world.

A former CIA employee, Snowden copied and leaked classified information that exposed the mass surveillance practices of the National Security Agency (NSA), with the cooperation of telecommunications companies and European governments.

Taking his findings to The Guardian and The Washington Post, the disclosures became international news.

But how do Snowden’s disclosures change things for us today?

, a special edition of the Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society (JICES), explores this question in depth.

Based on an international project led by Andrew Adams and Kiyoshi Murata, the project analyses the impact and perception of the social and ethical issues raised by Snowden. The articles examine Snowden’s impact in 7 different countries. The project shows that despite Snowden’s revelations, many ordinary people are still in the dark about how privacy issues affect us all.

As Guest Editors of the issue, Andrew Adams and Kiyoshi Murata answered some questions put to them by regular JICES Editor, Simon Rogerson.

What was the most surprising finding of this international study?

Andrew Adams (AA): How many young people think the right to privacy is important while admitting to not knowing what it is.

Kiyoshi Murata (KM): In each country investigated, those who knew Snowden’s revelations well were not the majority; even in Germany where it was reported that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone for personal use was tapped by the NSA. Given that respondents’ major source of the revelations was a media report, the importance of news media as the Fourth Estate in the Internet age was reaffirmed.  Most of respondents underestimated the threat to their right to privacy posed by government agencies including secret service and law enforcement agencies, though many of the countries investigated had (or have) a history of state surveillance, gag and though control. Respondents tended to consider for-profit organizations such as internet companies and telecoms were bigger threats to their privacy than government agencies. However, Snowden was an employee of a for-profit company, Booz Allen Hamilton, contracted to projects of the NSA when he started his revelations, and he disclosed that state surveillance programs like the PRISM program were operated by the NSA in cooperation with internet companies and telecoms; the agency could directly access the servers of the companies. Japanese youngsters demonstrated that they were outliers among those in the eight countries investigated in terms of their comprehension of the right to privacy, level of knowledge about Snowden’s revelations, evaluation of social contribution of Snowden, reactions to Snowden’s revelations, and hesitation in following Snowden’s lead.

What do the findings mean for ordinary people?

KM: Ordinary people have to reconfirm why protecting the right to privacy is socially important, and should understand who would intrude on their privacy and how their privacy can be invaded; the privacy paradox have to be resolved as soon as possible. People should realize that the society has been becoming a kind of black box, where ordinary people can be alienated without realizing it.

Paternalistic personalized services provided by businesses or government agencies to individuals based on complicated analyses of “big data”, a vast amount of personal data collected at every chance and shared among organizations in public and private sectors before data subjects know these facts, may function as soma in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World for ordinary people, but in reality they are silently controlled through the services. On the other hand, anyone can become a Josef K. in Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial; 24/7 monitoring systems and secret algorithms executed by government agencies in the name of antiterrorism or the provision of a safe and security environment can decide who is a suspicious person. Once people realize the actual conditions of surveillance, they must not hesitate to take countermeasures against it and to raise their voice against such state and organizational activities.

AA: There is a disconnect between younger people and governments (and in some countries older people) in terms of their understanding of the justifications offered by government for surveillance of the general population. This suggests that governments and surveillance organizations in democracies may have to adjust their approach in coming years.

Given the world is multicultural, how can there be any common approaches to the issues Snowden has raised?

AA: Internal surveillance is run by and of citizens, and so is subject to local cultural influences. International surveillance, such as that run by the US and UK (and others) of ordinary citizens in other countries is much more difficult. Treaties such as UKUSA should be subject to proper democratic oversight where possible.

KM: Technological countermeasures against surveillance Snowden disclosed have to be taken. Those countermeasures should be considered by well-intentioned engineers and shown kindly so that ordinary (non-technical) people can easily understand how to take them. In addition, ICT appliances for personal use such as smartphones have to be privacy by design and default. News media and educational institutes must spread knowledge of pro-privacy and anti-surveillance technologies.

What one thing would you suggest to make the information society a better place?

KM: Everyone has to correctly recognize risks behind the comfort and convenience ICT appliances and ICT-based services have realized, and has to cultivate wisdom to enjoy inconvenience suffered from selectively stopping using the appliances and services.

AA: Limits on the collection of personal information and the application of AI to that data, in particular for party political purposes.

How do world events affect the ethical acceptability of the actions Snowden discovered and reported?

AA: The interference by Russia in US, UK and other EU elections show us how dangerous the current information infrastructure is. Snowden's revelations feed into that in particular by showing how organizations like the NSA are undermining civil society, such as by weakening encryption systems. Only where they have real democratic legitimacy and a broad understanding of the trade-offs will they be fit for purpose.

KM: Any event including the increase in home-grown terrorism would not ethically justify government agencies’ indiscriminate mass surveillance. Even in war time, this is excessive state behaviour leading to totalitarianism.

Read more! is published in the Journal of Information, Communication, and Ethics in Society.