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Ed Snowden: A quintessential hacker

There aren’t many people to look up to in the public eye nowadays, but Edward Snowden is one. The 29-year-old former analyst is responsible for leaking details of the NSA’s massive citizen surveillance programs, including PRISM, a secret program collecting masses of personal data from all channels of digital communication. Snowden did not wait to be discovered, but instead revealed himself in a thoughtful and inspiring video interview with The Guardian.

Individuals like Snowden, Bradley Manning, and Daniel Ellsberg (of the Pentagon papers) help the U.S. look in the mirror. The video of journalists and children gunned down callously in Iraq is the mirror. So is the PRISM program. We have to protect those who put the mirror in front of us, and not let the government reward the honest actions of these civilians with a lifetime of humiliations, imprisonment, and terror. If there’s even a bone of regard for constitutional law left in the Obama administration, the correct action would be to award Snowden the National Medal of Freedom, rather than chase him into solitary confinement in subhumane conditions, a la Manning.

The MIT community is uniquely positioned to play a special role in this case, and others like it. The long-standing — but potentially fading — hacker culture of MIT, former home of Daniel Ellsberg, stands for individual freedom and privacy. Snowden is the quintessential hacker, refusing to give in to an unjust status quo, and using technical prowess restore the government’s accountability to the people by placing these documents in the public domain. The technically savvy community needs no explanation of the unbounded scope and perils of deregulated digital surveillance. It likewise needs no reminder of the potential for gathering public support for decent causes through the web, and this power must be harnessed to protect people like Snowden.

The unfortunate but realistic reaction in our “post-privacy” age is that these materials would be shrugged off with indifference. People already happily unload their lives onto venues like Facebook with no regard for privacy, and some might accept the premise that if the government were to look through their stuff, well, “it’s only” private emails, chats, photos, etc. The old “I got nothing to hide” argument gravely underestimates the potential of government surveillance to skew reality to imply wrongdoing. As Snowden points out, one only has to fall under suspicion to be monitored and potentially painted as a criminal. Accepting this would mean having total faith in the government’s collection and handling of private data. But we ought to trust the government even less for engaging in unethical activity behind our backs, rather than entrusting that whatever information they might come by, can be handled responsibly.

We need not worry about history. As the recent Guardian editorial points out, history will fall on the side of Snowden. But we have to fight to make sure his life and the lives of others like him are not turned into hell in the meantime, by standing up against oppressive and invasive government surveillance. MIT is a fine place to do so.

Yarden Katz G