Skip to main content

Why we're all stuck in the digital transit zone with Snowden

By Andrew Keen, Special to CNN
updated 8:11 AM EDT, Mon July 8, 2013
Protesters rally against the NSA's recently detailed surveillance programs June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Protesters rally against the NSA's recently detailed surveillance programs June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Snowden is stuck in the transit zone in Moscow, watched by Russian security services
  • Keen: Presumably it is his fate to be watched for the rest of his life wherever he ends up
  • Keen says we are with him, as we embrace devices that monitor all our activities

Editor's note: Editor's note: Andrew Keen is a British-American entrepreneur, professional skeptic and the author of "The Cult of the Amateur" and "Digital Vertigo." Follow Andrew Keen on Twitter.

(CNN) -- So where, exactly, is Edward Snowden? President Vladimir Putin knows. But Russia's chief snooper isn't telling. Not exactly, anyway.

The ex-KGB officer and master of doublespeak described Snowden as a "free man" ( biding his time in a "transit area" in Moscow's Sheremetyo airport. So free, of course, that the young American ex-surveillance officer -- watched around the clock by hawkish Russian security agents - has become as ubiquitously and transparently invisible as the brightly lit subject of a dystopian Kafka story.

Read more: How to hide your data from Internet

Snowden isn't alone in his fate. The truth is that anyone who uses the Internet is also all in that brightly lit "transit area." I'm afraid we are all in danger of becoming Edward Snowden now.

Andrew Keen
Andrew Keen

"Mr. Snowden really did fly into Moscow," Putin said, with just the glimmer of a secret policeman's smile. "For us it was completely unexpected." Oh, yes, it must have been totally unexpected. So unexpected, indeed, that the area between passport control and the arrival gates in Sheremetyo airport has been transformed into a high security hotel designed to both shield Snowden from public view and to watch him.

Yes, Sheremetyo is beginning to mirror the Internet, a vast all-seeing digital panopticon, a network in which somebody might be watching everything we do, a place where individual privacy no longer exists. And Snowden's fate -- of being watched around the clock, of having zero privacy -- could easily become all of our fates.

Opinion: In digital age, everyone is becoming a spook

Ironically, it's Snowden himself who has most clearly revealed to us our fate. In secret National Security Agency (NSA) documents which Snowden gave to the Guardian newspaper, we now know that for more than two years, the Obama administration allowed the NSA, to continue -- as the newspaper put it -- "collecting vast amounts of records detailing the email and internet usage of Americans."

Doublespeak isn't, of course, unique to the Russian security apparatchik. The Americans are pretty skilled at it too. "I'm not going to say we're not collecting any internet metadata," thus one Obama Adminstration official told the Washington Post.

Without privacy, I warn, our individuality, the very thing that defines us as unique human-beings, is fatally compromised.
Andrew Keen

But, as the Guardian notes, the distinction between metadata and data is mostly semantic. The truth is that the NSA has been data-mining us all of us to death -- Americans and foreigners alike -- in their paranoid search for enemies of the American state. Last year I wrote a book warning about this and called it "Digital Vertigo" -- in homage to Alfred Hitchcock's nightmarish movie about a San Francisco private eye whose life is destroyed by both surveillance and voyeurism. Some people said I was exaggerating. Now they know I wasn't.

By being able to read our emails and Internet usage, by harvesting over a trillion metadata records, the NSA knows absolutely everything about us. They know our tastes, what we think, where we go, what we eat, how we sleep, when we are angry, when we are sad. They have become our eyes and our brains. Hitchcock's 20th century movie about surveillance and voyeurism really has become the truth about 21st century digital life.

More from Andrew Keen: Should we fear mind-reading future tech?

Deal offered for Snowden's return
Where is Edward Snowden?

It's almost as if the agents at the NSA have become as omniscient as Google or Facebook.

The really terrifying thing about Snowden's revelations is the doublethink articulated by the Silicon Valley technology companies whose pipes and platforms have been hijacked by the snooping NSA bureaucrats. Google, Facebook and the rest all, of course, claim, in the sophisticatedly obtuse doublespeak of their lawyers, both ignorance and innocence about the NSA allegations.

But, as Techcrunch founder Mike Arrington notes, the truth about Silicon Valley's complicity is this horror story is much murkier, much more like the dark transit area in Sheremetyo airport where Vladimir Putin's spooks are monitoring Snowden's every movement.

Silicon Valley's fetish with radical transparency, with encouraging us to broadcasting everything we do and think, is destroying our privacy. And without privacy, I warn, our individuality, the very thing that defines us as unique human-beings, is fatally compromised.

Snowden's fate, whether he ends up in Ecuador or Guantanamo or stays in Sheremetyo airport, is to be watched by spooks for the rest of his life. Snowden, the "free man" in Putin's doublespeak, will never truly be alone again.

To avoid becoming Edward Snowden, we need to be much more critical of the invasiveness of Silicon Valley's big data companies. We must recognize the creepiness of all-seeing location devices like Google Glass. Most of all, we need to remember that the Internet is never really private so our most intimate thoughts are best kept to ourselves.

Visibility is a trap. Remaining free in our digital age requires us to be alone. We have to teach the internet how to forget. We must build an off-switch to the internet, to reinvent it as a dark space, a place where nobody can know what anyone else is doing.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrew Keen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:11 AM EDT, Mon July 8, 2013
Andrew Keen says we are metaphorically with Snowden, as we embrace more and more devices that monitor all our daily activites.
updated 9:23 AM EST, Tue February 26, 2013
Wearing spectacles that record our every move could be the end of privacy as we know it, says internet commentator Andrew Keen.
updated 11:03 AM EST, Tue November 27, 2012
Much has been written about the Twitterfication of the Gaza war. But there's a much more significant war taking place right now on Twitter.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Mon September 24, 2012
Like all online businesses, the marketing industry is being radically changed by the creeping ubiquity of mobile devices.
updated 10:44 AM EST, Thu December 6, 2012
Leading tech entrepreneurs are meeting at the Le Web conference to celebrate the future - an "internet of things" governed by intelligent devices.
updated 11:03 AM EST, Tue November 27, 2012
A war is taking place about freedom of speech in our new reputation economy; a war about what we legally can and cannot say on Twitter.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Mon May 14, 2012
By 2023, hideously powerful technology companies like the Weyland Corporation will rule the world. At least that's the storyline in "Prometheus."
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Tue April 10, 2012
Do we fear governmental abuse of our online data as much as abuse from private companies?
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Fri March 30, 2012
Social networking site Google + was launched last year as the internet giant tries to keep up with Facebook.
Is Google's remarkable dominance of the internet economy now under threat?
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Wed March 14, 2012
A local organization hosts a screening of
Should we really be empowering children to make moral decisions about a world in which they have little experience?
updated 5:31 AM EST, Tue February 28, 2012
With our increasing addiction to our mobile phones, we are in danger of creating a monster that we are less and less able to control.
updated 7:50 AM EST, Tue March 6, 2012
An uprising in Russia appears unlikely after presidential elections reestablished the primacy of the old regime, argues Andrew Keen
updated 9:34 AM EST, Tue February 21, 2012
There's a trillion dollar virus that spreading throughout Silicon Valley called social networking that feeds on our most intimate data.
updated 5:51 AM EST, Fri February 3, 2012
As Facebook prepares its billion-dollar IPO the question is whether it can make the world a better place for it s close to a billion users.
updated 11:37 AM EST, Wed January 25, 2012
Just as oil shaped the 20th century economy, so the politics of data will shape the 21st century digital economy, says Andrew Keen.
Our politics may not be the catastrophe-bound Titanic but they are wrecked on shallow ground, unable to move, says Andrew Keen.
updated 9:27 AM EST, Fri December 23, 2011
The role of employment in society will increasingly shape our attitude toward technology over the next year, says Andrew Keen.
updated 1:03 PM EST, Fri January 13, 2012
Andrew Keen says the future of the Consumer Electronics Show is online, not at trade shows where delegates spend too much time standing in line.
updated 5:46 AM EST, Tue December 13, 2011
The future of Russia may be determined by the very digital critics which its current leadership seeks to deride, argues Andrew Keen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT