Edward Snowden and the Chilling Effect

Edward Snowden is now safely ensconced somewhere in Russia as the result of his one-year asylum deal, something that will probably afford him the opportunity to collect himself after weeks in an airport holding lounge. Most likely in a room somewhere that isn’t under some kind of surveillance, or, according to conspiracy theorists, back in the arms of his double-agent friends. It’s ironic that twenty-something years after the end of the Cold War, and all those memories of the KGB and the East German Stasi intelligence service, Snowden has found a measure of freedom in a country that was one of the originators of the modern surveillance state. (The US is another one.)

It might be the sane thing to do to assume that every room in every last fleabag motel in Russia (or Las Vegas) is bugged. Still, maybe Snowden will be free enough to find himself alone for a moment, alone with his thoughts.

Think of that state—being alone with your thoughts. It’s glorious, isn’t it? You are free to remember your last encounter with a lover, create a work of art, plan the next steps of your life, or let your mind go blank. But slowly, inexorably, it’s become one of the last spaces of privacy we have left. Because, since our increasing online or on-phone life has ushered in a spectacular decrease in time actually spent face to face with another human being, an increasing percentage of our private thoughts have become easily accessible as digital information. While a German philosopher once correctly predicted that what we once considered solid: nation-states, institutions like the press, the productive apparatus itself, was melting into air, the reverse is occurring with our thoughts.

What scares privacy advocates most is the idea that the surveillance state is keeping a previously unimaginable accessible database of our ideas, desires, and practical activity. This database can quickly be grafted onto a narrative that could be, and often is called a “profile,” and all of that information can be used against us. That is, for the last 10 years or so, since they began to hack away at privacy laws under the guise of the Patriot Act, everything you’ve thought, said, or tried to buy on Amazon can be used against you in a future court of law. If the state–facing continuing deterioration of its economy and its concomitant social class tensions–becomes more repressive and intrusive than it is now in order to protect “national security,” it might come after you in a way you might not have anticipated.

But what about those years before things get to that point? Or maybe you think it’s too pessimistic to think the economy will never recover, and that our mad rush to severe income inequality will be reversed. What’s happening right now? Aren’t we already starting to, subtly, in ways we’re not even conscious of, beginning to censor ourselves? Hasn’t it already happened that–perhaps vaguely aware that all of your keystrokes can be targeted–you self-edited in, say an email you were sending to an old college friend. Maybe you thought twice about sending a recommendation for a book or documentary you may have read or seen about, say, political radicalism in the ‘60s, or the Islamic occupation of Spain in the first half of the previous millennium? Just as we are now trained not to say certain words anywhere near an airport or on the flight itself, are we now just not saying things—to people we know and love—that we would have said before?

Isn’t this about the slow closing of the American mind? Isn’t this what we expect to hear in a description of an old-school Soviet bloc country, or, as a large swath of Miami thinks, in Cuba?

This is the reason for the bipolar media spectacle of Snowden, Bradley Manning, and who knows whom else in the future. You can call them whistleblowers, or traitors to national security, but what they’re really doing is trafficking in forbidden information, things you’re not supposed to know. And they are being hounded down and locked up with the fervor that in the past was reserved for people who actually did tangible damage to human bodies and property. I’m not going to use the word for those people here.

They are being made an example of precisely because the surveillance state, whether intentional or not, has created a chilling effect—and it’s not just on civil or privacy rights. The ultimate result is a chilling effect on the thoughts we have, the ones we no longer feel comfortable sharing with those we know and love, the ones we’re beginning to erase even when we are alone with them.


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