Snowden tells us to stay informed

Amanda Maltin, Contributing Writer

Last week, Edward Snowden connected with an audience of University students, faculty, and alumni via Zoom in the Trout Auditorium.  The panel was sponsored by the Bucknell Program for American Leadership, an organization that aims to promote the “traditions of academic freedom,” according to its website. Snowden, national security expert turned free speech advocate, updated the audience on the role that surveillance plays in their everyday lives, and fielded questions from listeners. 

“Did you agree to this?”  This is the question that Snowden repeatedly asked his audience when describing the invasive manner in which corporations and the government collect data from private citizens.  Legally, the answer is yes, as we all sign “terms and conditions” before using apps.  But, in a society that is largely digitized, do we really have a choice?  Snowden would say that we do not.  He described the concept of coerced consent as it applies to our sacrifice of privacy and personal freedom in order to participate in the social networks that define our everyday existence. 

Snowden, without a doubt, is a controversial figure.  In 2013, he leaked classified documents that uncovered an unethical surveillance program run by the government, which not only tracked the activity of criminals, but also law-abiding citizens.  After being charged with crimes that would have landed Snowden 30 years in prison, he fled the country.  His passport was revoked during a layover in Russia, where he has since resided.  

Some herald him as a hero who exposed the government’s nefarious activities, and others see him as a criminal who betrayed his oath to the U.S. government as an NSA employee.  Politics and public opinion aside, Snowden raised legitimate concerns about the state of democracy and personal freedom in an age where surveillance and artificial intelligence monitor our every post, click and scroll. 

As current students at the University, we have come of age during the “Social Data Revolution,” a term used to describe the emergence of data collection to generate personalized outcomes for internet users.  This has reconceptualized our notions of privacy and security.  While algorithms make our feeds more suitable to our tastes and preferences, they also pose grave concerns to our civil liberties and set dangerous precedents for the future.  

So, what can we do?  Surprisingly, despite his experience working within an institution that seems to have become amoral, Snowden remains hopeful for the future and the role that young people can play in fixing the damage that has been done by expansive surveillance and A.I. programs.  He urged students to become educated about the system, and to hold their political leaders accountable.  

Snowden reminded the audience that these technologies are man-made, and that the problems they have led to will have man-made solutions.  It may be impractical to expect young people to take the extensive risks that Snowden did in order to call truth to power, but, staying civically engaged and informed about how surveillance and A.I. influence our political, social and commercial networks is a good start.  The American Civil Liberties Union and Privacy International are great online resources to get informed about your rights as a private citizen and stay informed about developments in the United States and around the world pertaining to privacy and security. 

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