These days it doesn’t leak, it drips. Sometimes it pours, exposing embarrassingly soggy governments to public. Surveillance is another dirty word in politically sensitive times. From drones to mobile phones, states have found novel ways of tracking the citizenry. In days of yore, espionage was used by one state on another to glean sensitive information and pip one’s rival in the strategic game. Surveillance was used selectively, mainly against political rivals and dissidents to keep them suppressed. Military intelligence kept tabs on subversive elements. Times have changed.
Surveillance has acquired gargantuan proportions, not discriminating between the common man and suspicious elements. The Snowden leaks, which revealed a draconian US state apparatus snooping on phone calls and internet communication, set off an intense debate on the trade-off between privacy and security. Before Snowden, it was Julian Assange —the WikiLeaks founder— who had many countries in the western hemisphere baying for his blood after he leaked a trove of diplomatic emails and sensitive footage from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, the mop-haired former hacker is a fugitive in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
In the limelight is Bradley Manning, the US Army Private First Class, sentenced to 35 years in prison by a US court for leaking sensitive secrets. It was Manning who handed over the trove of secret documents to which he had access in Iraq in his capacity as an intelligence analyst, to Assange, who published them on the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.
When a state snoops on people, it is supposed to do it in the interest of national security. But it does violate the right of privacy of an individual. What happens when an individual exposes a state’s secrets for what he calls the general good? What are the consequences he has to bear for bringing to light what he considers wrongdoings by his country?
Manning told the court he leaked the documents because he wanted the world to know what was happening in Iraq and that he was unhappy with US foreign policy. Similarly, Snowden, now in asylum in Russia after a weeks-long drama of hide-and-seek, has justified coming out with information on how Washington tracked phone calls and internet data.
British newspaper, The Guardian, first published the information revealed by Snowden. This led to the British government trying to intimidate the newspaper into submission to the extent that security officials visited the offices of the daily and destroyed computer hard disks containing the leaks.
If the state thinks it is right to keep tabs on people in the interest of national security, an individual who exposes any overreach by the former also has a right to have his voice heard.