The Snowden affair reflects the realities of the cyber age. Technology has made it easier than ever for our governments to monitor our communications, eavesdrop on other governments, and store that information, all in the name of public safety and anti-terror efforts.
However, our reactions to what Edward Snowden -- the former CIA operative now living in Russia -- did by exposing these practices are to some extent based on tradition, not modernity. We've seen this movie before.
Our poll surveyed more than 4,500 adults in the U.K., the U.S., and Canada. We asked whether they thought the occasional infringement on civil liberties justified security and anti-terrorism efforts. In Canada, where the country's worst case of terrorism unfolded not on native soil but over the Atlantic Ocean (the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182), just under half of respondents (49%) said yes.
In the U.S., where the terror of 9/11 is still fresh in many minds, 54 per cent said yes. Britons appeared to be the most accepting of the privacy-for-security tradeoff. When asked, they opined that the most important consideration when it comes to government monitoring is that sometimes the ends, security and anti-terrorism efforts, justified the means: the infringement of civil liberties such as the collection of personal information online. That's a clear majority of Britons. The question is why?
I would suggest that the answer lies in the four decades of violence, bombings and bloodshed borne by the British since the start of the Troubles in 1971. Throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s, Britain was the focal point of bombings, ambushes and targeted terror attacks carried out by the Irish Republican Army and other terror groups. Over time, the violence of the IRA and its offshoots have given way to other terrorists using the same modus operandi: killing and instilling fear in the hearts of people going about their everyday business.
No doubt the British drew on the resolve and stoicism they relied on during the Second World War. The phrase "Keep Calm and Carry On" is more than just today's pop-culture meme. It was the motto of families picking their way through the rubble of the Blitz. But they have also have had decades of sustained, violent threats and attacks to focus their acceptance of some government surveillance in the name of public safety. Consider also the long history Britons have had with other forms of surveillance. It is said that there are more CCTV cameras per person in the U.K. than in any other country in the world.
This may also speak to why 48 per cent of Britons surveyed feel that routine electronic government surveillance is either very or moderately acceptable, compared to 40 per cent of Americans. It's not a huge statistical difference, but it does suggest that in spite of the horrors burned onto the psyches of millions of people in the U.S. after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, the American experience remains one that holds strongly to personal liberties and freedoms.
There is one piece of tradition lost through the Snowden affair: the stripping away of the mythic and institutional respect people once held for their intelligence organizations. The NSA is outed as a common wiretapper of world leaders. Government Communications Headquarters, derivative of the once mighty UK Signals Intelligence (Sigint) which cracked Cold War codes, is embarrassed by Julian Assange. And Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) is accused of spying not on potential terrorists, but the Brazilian mining sector.
Little wonder then, that while the majority of adults in all three countries told us personal information gathered online should only be used by governments in anti-terror and anti-crime efforts, they also believe that their governments are using that information well outside such a defined scope. Cynicism is indeed a modern feeling. And when it comes to government surveillance, public safety, spying and Snowden, cynicism may well be what we feel.
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