14th November 2018

The doors opened. Suited serious looking adults shouldered their way into the room in order to secure the best seats. A large projector screen hung from the ceiling and the technicians were fussing over the laptop. Suddenly, his familiar face appeared on this screen. 

The room fell silent; the atmosphere was electric. Completely unaware of his impact upon the room, this infamous whistle-blower smiled casually and waved at us. Edward Snowden, the then 29-year-old high school dropout who had managed to secure a job with access to highly classified information for the NSA, leaked top-secret documents to the national press. And why? Because of a growing concern, as he explained, of the dystopian development of a “surveillance state”. On the 19th June 2018 Edward Snowden delivered a presentation about mass surveillance and data protection and completely altered my perception of the world.

This was my mandatory work experience week – post exams, a wind-down period at school - and somehow I had wangled a placement in the European Parliament in Brussels in the very same week that Edward Snowden was scheduled to give a conference call. As I sat - a 17-year-old schoolgirl still trying to decide whether Edward Snowden was the ‘good guy’ or the ‘bad guy’ – I felt my stomach turn, my heart rate quicken and I realised what a position of privilege I was suddenly in.

He began by explaining why he leaked the documents five years ago. In his mind he felt he had an obligation to the American public to inform them of the government’s plans for “mass surveillance” and how it was “spying” on its citizens. He believed Americans deserved to know what the government was doing, as the plans affected everyone in very personal ways. No government, he explained, should have the power to insidiously investigate its people - it is simply not democratic. As Snowden said, “without facts, there is no informed consent. Without informed consent, democracy has no meaning.” He chose to leak those documents because he believed the public needed to know the “facts” in order to give their “informed consent”. 

Snowden then drew our attention to our phones. He discussed a function which allows companies like Apple to track your every movement, with extreme precision. I had no knowledge of this before this conference call and when I went, with Snowden’s guidance, to switch it off, to my alarm, it told me which wing of the building I was sitting in for the meeting.

Data is a personal thing. It belongs to you and no one else has the right to use it without your permission. Why then have there been so many scandals where companies have used our data in arguably immoral ways and potentially put us in danger? There are two answers to this question; the first is that we don’t fully understand the importance of our personal data and therefore do not properly protect ourselves; and the second is that the internet makes it so easy for us to tick a box and click ‘accept’ without really considering the ramifications of this action. Although we are starting to understand the dangers, as a result of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytics scandals, this does not mean that we are safer. We need to understand what our data is worth, how it can be used against us and how to keep it safe. 

In May of this year GDPR, or General Data Protection Regulation was introduced, and companies, Schools, hospitals have been desperately rewriting policy documents and changing practice to fall in line with this EU legislation. However, as Snowden contended, despite the introduction of GDPR our data is still not safe. GDPR has changed the way in which our data is collected, used and retained. There is no doubt that our data is safer as a result of GDPR, but it is not safe enough. In practice, it has meant a reworking of the “terms and conditions” box that we so wilfully disregard. While GDPR means you can later ask for your data to be deleted, it will not protect you from the fact that it may have already been shared. 

Breaches in data protection not only affect us in the moment they happen, but they will affect how the future is formed. Our personal information can, has and will be used for the benefit of others’ financial or political gain.

How did I feel as Edward Snowden concluded his presentation? Deeply troubled. Vulnerable. Helpless. How must Snowden have felt as he underwent that same moment of realisation? Your average middle-of-the-road computer guy who somehow managed to land a job with the NSA? How must he have felt as he processed thousands of documents detailing global surveillance programs on an unprecedented scale? 

If there was doubt about Snowden in my mind before, it was clear now. Good guy or bad guy? Hero or traitor? For me, during that conference call on 19th June, Snowden revealed an important truth that I will find difficult to forget. But he did not succumb to helplessness when he discovered that same truth. He broke through the systems that I now consider to be criminal and sacrificed his own freedom in order to free others. Sounds heroic? Well that is because it is.

St Columba's School Kilmacolm

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