Oliver Stone’s movie “Snowden” came to theaters Friday. The true-story drama follows the lead-up and fallout surrounding the infamous NSA contractor’s decision to release thousands of top-secret documents and flee the country to avoid prosecution by the U.S. government.
The story is usually presented very simply: Edward Snowden is either a hero or a traitor, depending which stories you skim past on your news feed. Both views are grossly oversimplified, but the mere fact that we already have a film documenting such recent events raises an unavoidable observation: Issues of cybersecurity are increasingly present in the public consciousness.
Let me appeal to an ideal many of us grew up with: Whether you were raised in America or traveled the globe to get here, you’ve heard politicians, citizens, teachers and activists speak about the promise of freedom. We have all been told this is the land where we have a choice, a freedom to shape our identity, to express ourselves, to choose our course in life. Did you choose this course?
Even if you don’t want to keep anything private, shouldn’t you have a choice? You didn’t sign your name on the Patriot Act, you didn’t authorize the police to use StingRay devices to intercept your calls and texts and you never gave them probable cause. Shouldn’t police officers at least need a warrant to look through your private communications? Right now, they don’t, and the powers that be would rather you don’t know enough to argue about it. Stick to the hot-button issues — the ones that fit easily on picket signs and in headlines.
This brings us back to the movie and to the media. Whatever you think of Snowden’s actions, I hope you’ll reflect on how much of what I’ve told you is new information. If you’ve learned even one thing from this column that you didn’t know before, you’ve experienced the importance of the media and the free flow of information. Many surveillance programs being conducted in the U.S. today are still classified, marked as top secret. Maybe the programs you know about don’t bother you, but how many more are there that you’ve yet to discover?
Whether the way in which Snowden procured his leaked documents was right or wrong, the result allowed us to have a conversation. We get to discuss whether surveillance is wrong because we were given the choice, which our own government, the very people we rely on to protect our freedoms, would not grant us.
Consider for a moment what that kind of treatment means. Fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, we have the perspective to look back with clarity at the aftermath. The American people asked for protection from those who might harm us. In asking for this, we allowed ourselves to give up more than should have been asked of us. In asking for the apprehension of potential criminals, we allowed ourselves to be treated like potential criminals: no evidence, no warrant needed, we are all on watch.
How safe can we be when we are not allowed to know what measures are being taken on our behalf? Are we okay with trading privacy and freedom for convenience and security? Did anyone ever give you a choice?
David Billig is a second-year UF linguistics master’s student.