The Snowden Support Age Gap

I am often critical of fact finding, statistical analysis and polls, all of which can be heavily impacted by sample size, the questions used, the individual reporting the results etc. I am also typically wary of anecdotal 'data' for some of the same reasons and more. All that said, and relatively small sample size aside, I found it striking recently that, at a social gathering composed of intelligent, educated, thoughtful people of various political stripes, the main factor separating how people viewed the actions of Edward Snowden was age.

Very roughly, it appears that those from their late teens/early twenties to their late thirties were more inclined to view Snowden (or at least his actions) favorably. The general theme was that they appreciated that he had brought to light some governmental activities that many people of the age group had already suspected. Their parents' generation (and theirs) had a different outlook. Words like traitor were thrown around almost carelessly given the penalty that can result from a legal action based on the claim. The general theme seemed to be that, in a post-9/11 world, that discussing the espionage techniques and capabilities of the country put people at risk.

For some time, I couldn't necessarily figure out why the difference existed. After all, those in their fifties and sixties will have recalled the Watergate scandal, the core of which was domestic espionage, albeit between political parties (although many have noted that Snowden's actions could easily be classified as political in the way he intended them). While it is true that break-ins and cover-ups figured heavily in that chapter of history, it is also true that the focal point of all of those actions was domestic spying.

However, after a while, I began to formulate an opinion on why the age gap existed. At least for some, it may have more to do with how the younger generation uses technology - and therefore better understands the implications of that use - compared with how their parents use it.

Twenty- and thirty-somethings went to class not with notebooks made of paper, but of circuits. They are more likely to find life mates (or at least mates for the weekend) on the internet. Naughty trysts and rather embarrassing nights out that used to happen under cover of darkness behind bleachers, in back seats and in the less conspicuous corners of bars are now memorialized with photo evidence for all the world to see. Medical records that used to be locked in a file cabinet are now stored in databases. People can do more with their phones than supercomputers used to be able to accomplish.

While their parents have adopted technologies as well, it is unclear (to this observer at least) that they can grasp just how much of the activity of their everyday lives is captured up in code. Meanwhile, younger people who have experienced everything from first date requests to bullying on the internet may have a much better understanding of what their digital footprint could be if all of those interactions were combed through and stored in a central location.

There may, of course, be other factors. Those in their twenties and teens might not recall 9/11 with the same horror as older individuals. War weariness and poor economic conditions may have increased skepticism of the government in those whose friends and close relatives have had to deal more directly with both. Meanwhile, regardless of political affiliation, conservatism (with a small 'c'), and the trust in authority that often comes with it, tends to arise more broadly in those of a certain age.

That said, knowledge of 'how the internet works' has seemed to make knowledge of how the information that flows through it can be (mis)used a lot more frightening.


  1. Did anyone actively think that the US was not spying on everyone, foreign and domestic? Did the European leaders really think that the US hadn't bugged the EU office? OF COURSE NOT!!

    This is not a surprise! Guess what? It's still going to happen!

  2. Thanks for the comment Matt.

    While a lot of the negative press, as well as condemnations from abroad, have pertained directly to the disclosures that the US is spying on 'friends' (which I agree is really silly to be shocked about, leading me to believe that a lot of people are just trying to save face), I have more of a problem with his initial claims.

    Those are, in short, that the US government is collecting vast amounts of data on US citizens. While spying on other governments has been going on at least as long as history has been recorded, and while spying on individuals who are suspected of certain activities is part of that, it feels a lot different for emails and information about phone calls to be captured up without probable cause or real judicial review.

    While I personally believed that the government was taking liberties under the PATRIOT ACT, and while I may have admitted my belief that a lot of these types of things were happening after a few beers, to hear confirmation of the extent of it is a bit disconcerting to me.

    Now, people can make very logical arguments about these activities keeping us safer, but I might come out a little further on the civil liberty side of the see-saw than the safety side when it comes to that debate.

    At any rate, thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts.


  3. Anonymous9/7/13 21:02

    I think your analysis is right on the money re the age gap. But give us older folks for understanding the Internet - yet the difference is that much of our lives is still "analog"; old love letters in shoe boxes and not in email servers. For many of us, our privacy is just not as directly implicated as it is for people whose whole lives are stored in remote servers. And so the idea of snooping in those servers is naturally less upsetting to the "unplugged," many of whom happen to be over thirty, and eve to those who are plugged in but whose most embarrassing years were not captured in bits and bytes.

    1. "many of whom happen to be over thirty, and eve to those who are plugged in but whose most embarrassing years were not captured in bits and bytes."

      Excellent point, and one I should have at least mentioned.


  4. Anonymous9/7/13 21:25

    Not to rag on young people, but I think the Snowden support amongst young people is less about whether people understand the Internet and more about how they use it. In particular, young people are far more likely to break federal laws using their computers.

    Music is a prime example. In college, I learned that most of my friends suddenly had enormous, free music collections using something called "Napster." A decade later, Napster is gone, but music sharing (i.e., piracy) remains common.

    But it turns out that age correlates to the likelihood that you paid for your music. So an older, tech-savvy American might not think it's a big deal if the government knows what she purchased from iTunes. But a younger, equally tech-savvy American might (wisely) think it's a big deal if the government can track every song she's downloaded and uploaded in violation of copyright law--especially if she's downloaded or uploaded over 1000 songs (which I'm told is quite easy to do), because that would be a felony.

    Young people are also more likely than older people to do things like use illegal drugs, or access web sites without permission, or share passwords for accounts such as Netflix or HBO Go, or to write a blog without reporting the $1.50 of income from their Google AdWords account on their federal tax returns. All of those things are federal crimes, and all of them might be tracked with PRISM.

    Of course, the government says that PRISM is just to catch terrorists. But once the government collects the data for one purpose, it becomes easy for mission creep to set in, and that, I suspect, is what many young people fear: Prosecution. After all, if PRISM can help lock up criminals other than terrorists, why shouldn't the government use it? Aren't all criminals bad guys?

    But the problem with that logic is that most American citizens are also felons, though unprosecuted felons. In "Three Felonies A Day," Harvey Silverglate discusses just how broad our federal criminal laws are. These laws encompass activities that many--even most--Americans do every day, leaving us as the mercy of prosecutorial discretion. To date, the most powerful limit on the prosecutor's power to pick and choose which Americans to lock up has been our nation's privacy protections: While most Americans may commit an average of three felonies a day, as Silverglate claims, prosecutors cannot prove or even know about most of them. But PRISM threatens to change that.

    1. "or to write a blog without reporting the $1.50 of income from their Google AdWords account on their federal tax returns. All of those things are federal crimes, and all of them might be tracked with PRISM."

      As long-time readers will know, I have long eschewed the temptation of advertising revenue for journalistic freedom. That I would generate approximately $0.45/month, thus making the decision easier is, of course, beside the point!

      Your excellent and thoughtful point does bring a few things to mind. First off, maybe too many Americans are incarcerated. Secondly, if we all commit three felonies a day (I assume things like mental culpability, and not just wrong acts, were contemplated by Silvergate) maybe there are too many laws. It also makes me think (even if you didn't specifically mention it) things like the drug war, whether it is just, whether it is economical, what its real intent is, and what its impact has been.

      Moving on to PRISM specifically, Do we want to trade that anonymity for security? To the extent that we are still concerned as a society with who is prosecuted for what, (and I think we are given recent debates over racial profiling, affirmative action, judicial review of election procedures, etc.) what happens when minorities are targeted disproportionately (rightly or wrongly) through their digital footprints? Is it right that today's youth could be prosecuted for things that we, as a society, have been pretty happy with letting slide for a very long time?

      What about prison overcrowding, clogging the courts, etc?

      Additionally, while young people may commit more crimes (or provide evidence of them) digitally, it doesn't necessarily mean they are less law-abiding. After all, the crime in pot, or illegal gun possession isn't posting it on Twitter, it is the possession itself. And previous generations committed those crimes as well.

      I am not necessarily answering or debating any points you made - and I suspect we are actually not too far apart in our beliefs based on your final paragraph - more just thinking out loud.

      In any case, thanks for the thoughtful comment - and the fodder for my reading list!