This year's biggest story happened in June, when NSA contractor Edward Snowden began a still-ongoing release of information which, for the first time, revealed the true extent of the United States government's spying activities. It set off a debate that has simmered quietly but resolutely for six months and counting, and which, I believe, will eventually prove to be the event that carries American political thought over the threshold of the digital age.
TIME magazine came close to acknowledging the era-defining impact of this story when it shortlisted Snowden for it's Person of the Year award for 2013. The publication went on to award the honor to Pope Francis, naming Snowden a runner-up. While the surprising change in the Vatican's rhetoric is interesting, snubbing the exiled activist is an oversight on the magazine's part. If the title of "most influential person in a year" is taken to mean that individual whose actions had the most dramatic impact on how we remember our present time, then that person is Edward Snowden.
Former Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald — to whom Snowden leaked the documents — reacted by saying, "It's a meaningless award from a meaningless magazine, designed to achieve the impossible: to make TIME relevant and interesting for a few fleeting moments." He also tweeted this:
Even outside of TIME's editorial offices, this is too often overlooked. Despite causing global shockwaves in political circles, the NSA revelations were apparently at the forefront of the world's governments this year. Facebook reported that the subject was not among the top-five discussion items in any country in 2013. Even before the story dropped in June, 85% of Americans assumed their personal communications were accessible to the government and businesses.
This is exactly the reason why the information he provided us was important. To claim that our society's digital migration nullifies the NSA exposé is to misunderstand what proof of our government's disdain for privacy rights means. For one thing, we found out that there were relevant laws on the books — something that was probably news to the 85% of users who assumed data harvesting was occurring. Suddenly, it wasn't just a matter of a faceless Big Brother probably having access to your embarrassing porn searches; it was a documented, systemic fecklessness in place to protect us. In other words, many Americans found out that we were entitled to digital privacy rights by learning that the government disregarded them.
Snowden's leaks also evaporated the government's single-largest justification for the scope of spying by demonstrating that the surveillance did not target preventing terrorism. The sprawling program seemed to have no interest in homing in on threats, and had no limits. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was probably not discussing how to acquire a dirty bomb when the U.S. was spying on her. The snooping was ubiquitous, careless, and without consequence.
The political philosophy of privacy rights in an era of ceaseless sharing is a fraught discussion not easily sharable via Facebook posts. But as time goes on, it will grow in the political foreground for the millennials who will soon enough be doing the reminiscing. Studies show that our generation is the demographic that most intuitively senses the urgency of legally addressing the NSA's broad dissolution of the Fourth Amendment. A Washington Post poll taken in the wake of Snowden's bombshell showed, "Americans ages 18-29 place a higher priority on privacy than any other age group." In fact, respondents became progressively more insouciant about the NSA's privacy infringement the older they were.
This runs counter to the assumptions of thoughtless analysis that assumes since young people are the most fluent users of social media, we have the least regard for what is accessible about us to unknown parties. Rather, digital natives are highly savvy to the pitfalls of digital sharing (which is possibly why Snapchat is growing faster than Facebook). Perhaps too, the centrality of social media in our lives makes it imperative to legislate the accesses of law enforcement, other users, and outside parties in cyberspace. For those advocating the need for such a discussion, Snowden provided invaluable ammunition.
Feel how you will about the man himself, but the service he did for the world's technology users, especially for us in the U.S., is nothing less than reasserting the right of democratic transparency in a dimension that so far has largely avoided that question. His own words are hard to refute: "The consent of the governed is not consent if it is not informed."
For putting this reality in front of American citizens, Snowden will eventually be lauded as one of the early 21st century's most important civic figures, as the activist responsible for ushering civil rights into the digital world. It's a pity that TIME missed a chance to help contemporaneously legitimize his fight.