The year Big Brother was indecently exposed

While a lot has been said about Pope Francis being chosen as Time’s Person of the Year, I think the magazine’s first runner-up in the contest, Edward Snowden, would have been a hotter choice!

Not that Pope Francis has not made his mark on the world, of course.

At the end of very year, Time Magazine chooses the person who, in the opinion of the magazine's editorial staff, had the most considerable influence on world events. In the words of its current managing editor, Nancy Gibbs: 'Time defines its Person of the Year as the individual, who, for better or for worse, had the greatest impact on the news and our lives this year.' There is no value judgement involved here - it is just a matter of the impact that person had on current affairs. That is why over the years, the list of Time's 'Persons (previously Men) of the year' include Adolf Hitler and Ayatollah Khomeini.

Pope Francis certainly deserved this accolade. He has projected the Catholic Church in a different way without disturbing any of its basic tenets; and as Nancy Gibbs puts it: 'Rarely has a new player on the world stage captured so much attention so quickly - young and old, faithful and cynical - as has Pope Francis.'

The Daily Mail this week reported that according to the Global Language Monitor's annual survey of the internet, Pope Francis was the most talked about person in the world this year. And a CNN/ORC International poll released last Tuesday found that 88% of American Catholics approve of how Francis is handling his role. The popular pontiff has made a positive impression among Americans in general: nearly three in four view Francis favourably. The survey suggests that the Pope is arguably the most well-regarded religious figure among the American public today. The choice made by Time Magazine is therefore no surprise.

Yet, as a liberal, I must say that it is about time the world realises that it owes a lot to the courage of Edward Snowden, a contractor of the United States' National Security Agency (NSA) who could take it no longer and decided that the only way to stop the rampant abuse of the right for privacy of so many men and women all over the world was to expose it. He felt that revealing details of the NSA's global electronic surveillance would lead to the change needed so that things would not remain the same.

In an interview with the Washington Post published earlier this week, Snowden said that he has accomplished what he set out to do: "For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission is already accomplished."

"I already won," he insisted. "As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn't want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself."

In fact last week, a White House-appointed panel proposed curbs on some key NSA surveillance operations, recommending limits on a programme to collect records of billions of telephone calls, and new tests before Washington spies on foreign leaders. The panel's proposals would have never been made were it not for Snowden's courageous decision. Yet, the US considers Snowden to be a fugitive, and American authorities have charged him with espionage and theft of government property.

Meanwhile, a Federal Judge has ordered the NSA to stop collecting telephone records of two persons who challenged the constitutionality of the NSA's actions. This decision has been suspended pending an appeal, but it is only one of several challenges to the surveillance programmes carried out by the NSA. Snowden's reaction was that he felt vindicated, as "a secret programme authorised by a secret court was, when exposed to the light of day, found to violate Americans' rights".

Apparently, however, the American Constitution protects only the rights of American citizens and NSA's snooping on foreigners is legal under American law. So much for the rest of the world's anger on the American way of getting to know more about all of us!

The threat to freedom ironically comes from the way people have changed their behaviour in the wake of the communications revolution of the last two decades. Every mobile phone records the owner's movements and stores that information with the service provider. E-mail chats and text messages give more than an inkling of one's social relations and ways of thinking. Using digitalised fare cards for travelling by underground trains and buses means one's travels can be charted.

Google searches may reveal one's deepest secrets.

Other new technological devices that can be snooped upon include wearable computer gadgets that monitor your pulse and smart meters that record what time of night you turn off the lights.

In other words, the Snowden revelations show that Big Brother never had the opportunity to watch us as much as he has today.

According to Time, the NSA gathers 5 billion cell-phone location records around the world every day. It has bugged the French and EU offices in Washington and at the UN in New York, monitored the communications of numerous political leaders including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and spied on citizens of practically every country in the world.

No wonder that surveillance has become a new industry: NSA employs 30,000 people monitoring all such personal information and costs the American people some $52.6 billion annually.

It is, of course, not just the US that carries out this type of surveillance. Other countries do it, although probably not to the extent that the Americans do.

Some argue that this sort of surveillance is necessary in the war against terrorism. For me this is equivalent to saying that all this snooping is necessary for the protection of the freedom that it mocks.

Unchecked and without being properly regulated, this surveillance is open to abuse by whoever is running it. Each one of us has some peccadillo, some skeleton in his or her cabinet. It could be noted and ignored until some tentacle of Big Brother decides that someone is a security threat.

The possibilities of this kind of surveillance on a large scale are practically limitless; but so are the possibilities of it being abused.

We might have surpassed 1984 by thirty years but today's scenario is no fiction.  Snowden has shown it is fact. The applecart that Snowden has upset is enormous and every freedom loving individual should be grateful to him.

Otherwise 2013 would have passed without society realising yet another threat to its freedom.

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May I take this opportunity to wish the editor and staff of MaltaToday and its readers a very prosperous New Year.

Michael Falzon is Chairman of the Malta Developers Association and a former Nationalist infrastructure minister
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