Edward Snowden and the Queen go rather well together

The Christmas messages of the whistleblower and the monarch dovetail nicely; the one showing off the family addition, the other fearful of a lack of privacy
  • @archiebland

It's a shame that Edward Snowden's Christmas message was broadcast at the same time as the Queen's: they turn out to have dovetailed rather well as contrasting reflections on the future. Her Majesty is, it turns out, significantly more optimistic than Mr Snowden. She sees Prince George and feels herself moved by "the chance to contemplate the future with renewed happiness and hope". Snowden, on the other hand, considers a baby of 2013 and finds a darker augury. "A child born today," he said, "will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They'll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves – an unrecorded, unanalysed thought."

Whether either message was significant is another matter. I'm instinctively sceptical about the Queen's analysis: the circumscribed life that awaits our future king seems mostly a cause for sadness, not hope. As for Mr Snowden – well, the significance of his revelations this year and the deep convictions behind them mean that his argument deserves more careful consideration. But actually, now that the sprout-addled haze of Christmas Day has worn off, I'm not sure I agree with him.

Snowden's Channel 4 broadcast was founded on the same themes, of course, that have animated his battle with Washington's National Security Agency (NSA) from the start. But in that warning about the next generation, the weight of his focus shifted subtly – from a searing critique of governmental overreach to an argument about how we, as citizens, should respond to it. It's interesting to think about that change in the context of Snowden's recent remarks in an interview with The Washington Post. "For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission's already accomplished," he said. "I already won … because, remember, I didn't want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself."

This is a kind of victory, and there is no question that his revelations have been the story of the year. But his Christmas message suggests that, actually, he hasn't quite convinced himself that this is a complete definition of success. It's all very well to expose the NSA, he now says – but in the long term, there's a wider argument that matters more, about our very definition of privacy, and about whether we think it's a fundamental value that should be treasured at all costs.

That argument, of course, is less about the NSA than it is about Facebook. If we write emails and are then angered that they are read by the Government, that is a breach of the principle of privacy, but it doesn't suggest we are apathetic to the principle; if we post compromising photos on a social network you might conclude that we just don't care about it.

But if this is Snowden's concern, I would suggest that he is worrying about the wrong thing. His starting point – that a child of 2013 will never have an unrecorded, unanalysed thought – doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. In that Washington Post interview, he also made it clear that he practically lives online, and perhaps that habit of mind has blinded him to the point that, in fact, most of us maintain an inner life that's not played out on the net. In this sense, the most fundamental sense of privacy seems bound to be instinctive: for as long as we can keep our thoughts in our heads, we are bound to have an expectation that we have a right to do so.

Still, there's a looser, more practical standard for the abandonment of privacy that we might still find frightening – the dissemination of pictures and words that tell the world who our friends are, where we live, what we care about, what mistakes we have made. And it's here that, curiously, Snowden's web-centric life brings him into alignment with those Luddites who assume the worst of any innovation. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest young people are the ones who are most suspicious of the ways that networks such as Facebook expose them – even if it's not spies that they worry about so much as their parents.

According to a major new ethnographic study run by UCL, teenagers are increasingly shying away from putting all their eggs into the Facebook basket: instead, they use a mix of apps to maintain their social connections. They send self-destructing messages to their closest friends on Snapchat, and maintain a looser, much less exposing social circle on Twitter. Do they worry about privacy? Well, no, apparently they don't. But maybe that's because teenagers, as picky consumers who don't want their parents to keep tabs on them, are sufficiently confident in the power of the marketplace not to have to worry about it.

None of this is to denigrate Edward Snowden's extraordinary whistleblowing, or to impugn his first, deep insight: that in a digital age, privacy is at stake as never before. But the reasons why he is wrong on this one point are helpful as a way of figuring out how best to resist the forces he is concerned about. For one thing: if everything that matters about you exists in a format accessible by the NSA, you should be online a little less, and in your head a little more. For another: don't worry too much about the death of the privacy instinct; based as it is on our very deepest social needs, it's unlikely to be killed off by the mere arrival of digital culture. Ironically, there is probably only one child born in 2013 who really should be pessimistic about ever being able to live their life in peace: Prince George.