How do you define a superhero?
There is, of course, the generic image that absorbs so many people: the chisel jaw; the superhuman strength and unfettered benevolence; the excruciatingly tight costume; saving the world; winning the hearts of millions (including that of some girl who was rescued in dramatic fashion), and so on.
Whatever its criteria, the notion of a superhero strictly belongs to a fictional realm – the big screen, usually. Superhero status, as perceived in the modern world, is something idealised rather than personified.
There is, however, one aspect of a superhero’s nature that we can grasp. And I’m not talking about shooting bad guys; I’m talking about mankind’s ability to fight evil.
Fiction’s purpose is to replace the multitude of fears experienced in the real world with one concentrated, singular force of evil. Jaws is a prime example. The shark’s function is to create one solitary fear, consequently allowing us to forget about what exists in the modern world. Such a theme is repeated in superhero movies with reckless abundant.
A fictional superhero’s job, then, is to defeat this fabricated object of evil, and in turn we, for a brief moment, can feel shielded from what scares us in our daily lives.
But what are these fears, and where do they stem from?
The day-to-day struggle of all people is characterised by concerns over things such as financial stability, personal security and, more generally, anything larger than oneself. Such anxieties are rooted in what is commonly known as ‘the system’ – the supervening body that governs every aspect of our lives – and our inability to do anything but live under its watchful glare.
It can be said, therefore, that anybody who launches a direct assault on the springboard for these fears, attacking its very origins in the interest of enforcing positive change, is something of a real life superhero.
This is where Edward Snowden comes in.
In May 2013, Snowden, a chief infrastructural analyst and system administrator for the National Security Agency (NSA), took leave of absence from the organisation’s Hawaii headquarters, telling his supervisors that he was returning to mainland USA for epilepsy treatment.
Instead, Snowden flew to Hong Kong, where he began his assault on ‘the system’ in earnest. In the space of a few months, he was known worldwide.
A year prior to his departure to Hong Kong, Snowden quietly began an assimilation of data that outlined the details of NSA’s draconian global surveillance programme.
On May 20th, approximately 10,000 documents were disclosed to Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong, a journalist working at The Guardian. This was the first of numerous large-scale disclosures – disclosures published by media outlets across the world, including Der Spiegel, The New York Times, O Globo, Le Monde and The Guardian.
What Snowden revealed was earth shattering, and fundamentally altered the way people viewed surveillance, their own personal security, and ‘the system’ itself.
It was divulged that the NSA could exercise a god-like amount of power on regular citizens. In the wake of 9-11, the NSA was secretly empowered with the capacity to gather the telephone, Internet and location records of entire populations. The targets were not just suspects, but literally everyone. Through illicitly tapping into Yahoo and Google data centres, ‘hundreds of millions’ were being watched around the clock, including you and I.
These disclosures emphatically demonstrated that the world’s biggest surveillance organization went far beyond its primary aim of “national security.” More shockingly, it was shown in a series of documents that the NSA, in ten whole years, did not ‘directly contribute to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot.’ Not even once.
Which begs the question: if the NSA doesn’t do anything in terms of security, what does it do?
Snowden showed the world that surveillance was not about safety, but about control. It’s almost as if he gave the public a pair of glasses from where They Live, with which they could, for the first time, see the tyranny and deceit embedded within the democracy for themselves.
In an interview in June 2013, he shed light on what those within the NSA could do, pointing out that ‘I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.’
Nobody is safe under such omnipotence. Snowden revealed that the NSA could, for whatever reason, discredit and ruin the lives of anybody in possession of a phone or social media account. The Huffington Post gave one galling example in 2014: a document from Snowden revealed that the NSA gathered records – dating back to five years ago – of visits to pornographic sites by those thought of as ‘radicalizers’, in a crude attempt to harm their reputation.
The NSA’s scrutiny mirrors that of Richelieu from The Three Musketeers: ‘Give me six lines written by the most honest man and I will find in them something to hang him.’ And just think: how many posts on social media – including the deleted stuff – have you written?
But what is the reason behind all of this? Why did Snowden do what he did? He points out that, contrary to the opinion of many, he is not trying to bring down the NSA. He is not Che Guevara, nor is he Superman. Rather, Snowden’s actions are rooted in a belief that the public – and not a group of government officials – should determine right and wrong in this situation.
‘I didn’t want to change society,’ he told The Washington Post. ‘I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it could change itself.’
Snowden’s actions have precipitated an ongoing international debate over privacy and domestic surveillance. The Obama administration has been forced into declassifying thousands of documents it fought for years to conceal. Technology giants such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have taken radical steps to block the arbitrary collection of their data. The basic structure of the Internet itself is now under immense scrutiny. In April 2014, a poll showed that less Americans used the Internet for shopping, emailing and banking as a result of the ‘Snowden effect’.
And yet, the true scale of Snowden’s actions is still unknown. Three years on from his departure to Hong Kong, and only around 5% of the 1.2 million downloaded documents have been exposed to the public. With the seismic influence already generated by this 5% in mind, it’s impossible to approximate exactly how much ‘the system’ will suffer at the hands of this bespectacled genius in the coming years.
What we can know for sure, though, is that Snowden – more than anyone else – has the power to shake ‘the system’ to its very roots. He may not wear a cape or a tight costume, but make no mistake: Snowden is the greatest superhero of our time.
by Leo Neiber, @leo_nieboer check him out #UpcomingTween