Beyond the obvious violation of individuals’ privacy implied by such activities lies the danger that these firms will later make a deal with authoritarian regimes in Russia or China, where little, if any, effort is made to preserve even the illusion of privacy. Google already has some experience in turning over information to China’s security services. Against this background, it is impossible to know whether these companies are already spying on Western leaders together with the NSA.
Snowden’s presence in Russia, even in the airport’s international transit zone, has given the US a pretext to declare that he is not a whistleblower, but a traitor. That Snowden has now applied for temporary asylum in Russia has reinforced that interpretation. Ironically, by turning the affair into a spy thriller, Putin has helped the US salvage its reputation, or at least to deflect some of the attention from the NSA’s surveillance programs.
The discussion about security, privacy and freedom that the Snowden drama has sparked is long overdue, but the scandal has begotten many losers. Snowden has effectively given up his future. The US and Obama have lost their claim to the moral high ground, and liberal democracies’ apparent inability to protect their citizens from infringement of their individual rights has undermined their standing at home and abroad.
Russian society will also pay a price, with the NSA’s surveillance programs giving the Kremlin ammunition to defend the expansion of state control over the Internet and other aspects of citizens’ personal lives. Similarly, the scandal will likely inspire China to strengthen its Great Firewall further.
The ordeal’s only victor is Putin, who now has grounds to dismiss US criticism of his authoritarian rule. At the slightest provocation, Putin will be able to point to the US’ hypocrisy for spying on, say, EU facilities as part of expanded surveillance programs supposedly within the scope of the war on terror and for hunting Snowden after accusing Russia of unfairly prosecuting Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.
Snowden did not create the security-privacy dilemma, but he did illuminate a deeply rooted problem that Western leaders have long tried to obscure. One can only hope that his actions, and the resulting scandal, will compel Western leaders to reassess their approach to national security and not simply lead them to try to conceal it better.
Lilia Shevtsova is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow.
Copyright: Project Syndicate