Time to forgive Ed Snowden and let him come home

Embarrassment over the revelations about the NSA's domestic activities is a poor reason to prosecute the man who shined the light on them

Last week came word that Edward Snowden, who walked away with a cache of National Security Agency documents and has been leaking them in dribs and drabs ever since, wants the U.S. to drop spying charges against him so he can come home.

And I'm inclined to agree that that is the right thing to do. It's clear now that these documents, much like the embassy cables released by Wikileaks a couple of years ago, haven't had any detrimental impact on the safety and security of the U.S. -- unless you count being really embarrassed.

The fact is that Snowden, with his revelations showing the U.S. government spying on every American every day, while also listening in on heads of state, who happen to be allies, and intercepting traffic from every major Internet service, did us a huge favor by revealing the extent of the surveillance state. He should be applauded as a hero and protected as a whistleblower, not prosecuted as a spy.

If he hadn't leaked those documents, we wouldn't be seeing Congress looking into the behavior of the National Security Agency, a fact that hasn't escaped the NSA's chief, Gen. Keith Alexander, who told Congress recently that we need to find a way to stop journalists from reporting on the Snowden leaks.

Right, because if it weren't for that pesky First Amendment, he wouldn't be having these headaches. Alexander, in his zeal to collect every email, listen to every phone call, follow every GPS-enabled smartphone and read every piece of mail we ever share, has forgotten about the U.S. Constitution. It seems it was not only the Fourth Amendment's right to privacy that was getting in his way, it was the First too. Damn. Wonder if we can change those two to make life easier for him and his group of surveillance-state freaks.

But Alexander is right in a way. We have a free press and it allows us to print those documents even if Snowden may have taken them illegally. When I suggested to a friend that Snowden be allowed to return without fear of prosecution, he said that could be a slippery slope. What if more government employees started leaking documents? Wouldn't forgiving him sanction his activities?

In a way it would, but what he did in this particular case was let us see behind the curtain. And when we peeled back the fabric, what we found was absolutely chilling. In this case, what he did was a good thing because we learned what was happening, and we can now have a very important conversation as a nation and a society on what type of country we want to be and what level of surveillance we are willing to tolerate in the name of protecting us from terrorists.

And ultimately we would need to decide each leak on an individual basis.

Civil rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been documenting the impact of these revelations on civil rights. They have a post on their site on 22 documented cases on the impact of the NSA spying on the right to association. You can be sure, the EFF didn't have to dig that hard to find them either.

And it's not just people worried about civil liberties; the Internet companies that had their security compromised are upset too. In fact, according to an article on Forbes.com, the country's biggest tech companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook and AOL, sent letters to the House and Senate Judiciary committees demanding some reform.

Internet engineers are upset as well, because the NSA is compromising the integrity of the Internet. And let's not forget that the Internet is a major economic engine, not one you want to risk for any reason. According to an article on MIT Technology Review, Internet engineers have been banding together to find ways to build additional security into the Internet backbone that would make this type of spying much more challenging for the government and anyone else who wants to intercept data. As currently constructed, there are just too many places where it's too easy to tap into data as it moves through the Internet pipes.

Prior to Snowden's disclosures, there were those among us who had suspicions about what the government was doing, but how paranoid would you have had to be to imagine the depth of spying going on right here at home on data belonging to U.S. citizens? That is what is outrageous. Spying on people from other countries is, after all, the NSA's job, but systematically and routinely sucking up the communications of U.S. citizens should raise the ire of us all.

We know all of this only because Snowden took those documents, just as, a generation ago, we found out about the extent of government lying in Vietnam only because Daniel Ellsburg had the courage to take a similar step when he released the documents that became known as the Pentagon Papers.

I'm sure that the people in the government who want to punish Snowden are driven mainly by the great humiliation they feel as a result of these revelations. But if you analyze what he's done, you realize that he has not threatened any lives or given away any state secrets that compromise the security of the U.S. All he has done is shared information with us that we as citizens have a right to know.

And for that reason, I say let Snowden come home. Drop the charges and let him testify before Congress. Then let's take steps to fix what's broken here -- which we wouldn't even know about unless one man had had the courage to do what was right and show us the truth about what our government was doing.

Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist and blogger.

Read more about internet in Computerworld's Internet Topic Center.

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