27 Dec 2013

Edward Snowden – making us all think again about privacy

America’s most wanted whistleblower has made the world think about privacy and the boundaries of intelligence gathering – which is why Krishnan Guru-Murthy has chosen him as his person of 2013.

For 10 years the words “mission accomplished” have only conjured that awful image of George Bush on a navy ship, wearing a pilot’s outfit, with that banner behind him after what turned out to be just the opening days of the Iraq war.


The phrase has ever since signified hubris, misplaced bragging and spectacular “misunderestimating” (as Dubya might have said). At the end of 2013 Edward Snowden has reclaimed the words in saying his own mission has already been accomplished.

When he says it, you know what he means and you can understand why. After months on the run, an enemy of his state, attacked by Republicans, Democrats, Conservative and Labour politicians in Britain, we can surely say: Edward Snowden shaped 2013.

Snowden’s enemies would have us believe he is a narcissist and traitor. The first charge can never really be proven. But Snowden is not living the life of a narcissist in Russia. He evades the limelight and lives simply. While we would all give so much for an interview with him, he turns almost everybody down. As for traitor: he believes he defected to the people, not the other side.

His argument has stayed consistent, that the American people never decided to live this way, with their agencies performing such extraordinary surveillance at home and abroad on friends, enemies and nobodies. He claims he wanted to give people a say.

MI6 bosses, who either conspired or cooperated with the NSA, repeat the claim that he put agents’ lives at risk and damaged operations. It is hard to see how he did not. Enemies have learned as much as the rest of us about how and who they are watching. The bogeymen of the world will no doubt be inspired to think up ever more devious ways of evading detection.

If damaging intelligence networks was a good enough reason never to blow the whistle, we might as well let them do anything. But we don’t, and it isn’t. So yes, MI6 and the CIA and GCHQ and the NSA will all have to retrench and redouble and try harder to keep it all within the law. If there had been a major terrorist attack or intelligence disaster that could be tracked back to the leak, things might be different.

Snowden has done something much more profound than make life difficult for the spying community. He has made the whole world think about privacy and the boundaries of intelligence-gathering. It isn’t just Angela Merkel or Binyamin Netanyahu who now know their suspicions are correct. It isn’t just that we all had confirmed what we all thought anyway about the insecurity of emails and mobile phones. It is that we have all had to think about how insecure the internet and our daily communications are – how vulnerable that makes our lives in the event that somebody, something or some ideology wants to harm us.

It has made us think again about the importance of personal contact: how the only true secret is one told in person, in private and kept by human beings we trust. And how many of our secrets are perhaps not worth keeping secret. Many things we think of as private don’t need to be, and perhaps won’t be in the future. But the end of privacy is not inevitable. It is something we must choose. That is something Snowden reminded us of.

He also made us think again about what we want our governments to do for us, to protect our safety. Some will take the “I have nothing to hide” approach to life. Others will do the opposite. We won’t agree. We will all have different boundaries. But for that alone, set aside the sheer explosion of Snowden’s mission, he is the person of the year. Like him or loathe him.

Follow @krishgm on Twitter

For more on Edward Snowden and the other winners, losers and influencers of 2013, visit the Channel 4 News big fat graphic of the year

Go to the Channel 4 websute to watch Edward Snowden’s Alternative Christmas Message