On my last morning in Davos, I spotted one of those telepresence robots — the kind Sheldon uses in Big Bang Theory and the kind Edward Snowden has used for interviews and speeches — and fantasized about hacking into it to enable Snowden himself to appear in the halls of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.
That would be be appropriate, for this struck me as the post-Snowden Davos. It took a few years to sink in, but the results of Snowden’s work and his name — although mostly mumbled or hushed — came up time and again during last week’s do. Trust, transparency, surveillance, encryption, security — his impact echoed in subject after subject. To me, this is further evidence that Edward Snowden is no spy, no traitor, no hacker, no criminal, and more than a whistleblower. Edward Snowden is a policymaker as influential as most anyone invited to the clubhouse of the rich and powerful.
I moderated a lunch about fighting cybercrime, where the Forum gathered law-enforcement officials and companies so they could agree to agree about how to attack the digital threat to our net and our security. They spoke about the mushy line between crime and terrorism and how one now hires the other — Crime as a Service (CaaS), in the words of one expert. They found common ground in the need to share information.
Key to their agreement was a clause that acknowledged the need to discuss various contentious issues — which weren’t listed — in order to build the trust needed to do this work. I suggested we put an imaginary fence inbetween the tables to corral the contentious issues to be dealt with, the herd of elephants in the room: encryption, surveillance, transparency, privacy, the NSA, and Snowden. He was there in every one of those topics.
The only time I heard Snowden explicitly discussed — rather than offhandedly mentioned, hoping he would go away — was when a senior government official said that Snowden spread misinformation, and other official machers nodded in agreement. What a dazzling hall of mirrors that is: Snowden is called a criminal because he revealed government information that a government official now says is mis- (or dis-?) information so is he then a criminal after all?
My Davos started, as it does every year, watching a discussion of the important Edelman Trust Barometer. This year’s findings were most sobering as they revealed an exploding gap in trust of institutions between what Edelman defines as the elite — top 25% income; educated; news consumers; the people who run said institutions — and what they called (and I’ll quibble with this later) the mass. In that widening maw of distrust roils the phenomenon we now know as Trumpism. The Trumpites and even the Bernieites and movements like them around the world — Richard Edelman emphasized that the trend is global — do not trust especially government. There are many reasons why, especially and obviously economic inequality — and in many nations corruption. There’s another reason, one mentioned on this panel: Snowden and what he revealed about what our governments do to us.
I went to a few sessions on the internet of things — a topic so sizzling this year it smells like bacon — and over and over I heard fretting about how these gadgets’ data could be used to surveil us. At a public session (so I can give credit) Harvard’s Jonathan Zittrain asked the critical question none of the corporate suits on stage would answer: Will you sign an Internet of Things Bill of Rights to protect our data and us? How do we know this is needed? Snowden.
I watched a discussion about brain research that asked whether your own — in the words of someone protected by Chatham’s rule—“meat computer” could signal confession of past crimes or predictions of future ones. Why worry about this? Snowden, among other reasons.
One of the best-run public sessions I saw, moderated by Reuters Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler, examined the perils and causes around the fragmentation of the net into balkanized national nets. Adler questioned both the US secretary of commerce and the EU vice-president who are negotiating over the imminently expiring safe harbour for the exchange of data across national boundaries.
That is the Forum’s power: to convene such discussions and to force the questions facing the powerful. Without the safe harbour, tremendous value in international commerce could be lost. Why is it so difficult to nail? Why is there such mistrust about what will happen to data in the United States and on the way there? You know the answer.