The Ethics of Edward Snowden

(When I started this blog and named it “WordPressing Matters” I hoped to have that title echo the fact that I’d try to focus on the important issues our time. My first post was admittedly not a very serious one; but with the recent events regarding the whistleblower Edward Snowden I feel the need to delve into this issue and break the issue down into what I hope will be valuable to you all.)

For me, people learning about ethics is like the old proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” When it comes to ethics; having someone learn why and how to act morally will always have them do the right thing. Reinforcing good behaviour also works the other way around though; strengthening unethical behavior can lead to tragedies and make good people do nothing to stop it. So if there is one very important thing that comes out of the NSA leaks besides learning about the information itself, it is that the ethical reasoning behind why whistleblowers do what they do will take centre stage.  To see the full interview of Edward Snowden where he explains his personal motivations behind leaking of the PRISM Surveillance Program that preemptively monitors and stores all domestic and foreign communication data you can watch the video here:

In the video Edward discusses many ethical dilemmas that made him question his involvement in the program and eventually decide to violate his security clearance and inform the public on what is transpiring without their knowledge or consent. There has been many  critics of Snowden who say that he’s “no hero” at all and have chosen their position partially based on the fact that the surveillance programs were in fact “legal”. Besides the fact that the program had little to no oversight and that the court that authorizes operations like PRISM is essentially a rubber stamp committee according to former NSA analyst Russell Tice; there is a very big difference between being legal and ethical. As the chart below handily shows, the two are not always equal:

Legal vs EthicalThe truth is that just because a legal authority says it is “right” doesn’t automatically make it so. History is filled with heroes and even whole nations that broke the law to do what was right. The gap between what is ethical and legal is constantly in flux and is highly susceptible to government abuse because they have the ability to do everything they can to influence and control the judiciary which makes those kind of decisions. We can never make the assumption that going through the legal system automatically means something is just: let alone a secret court that has almost no oversight. Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have actually made progress in opening up these courts after the immense spotlight that been brought upon them in the wake of Snowden’s leaks. I find this very encouraging because it actually shows that there can be a “domino effect” because when critical pieces of previously secret information are released it allows the public to drill further to protect their rights or to prevent the waste of their money.

This blog post is heavily inspired by Dan Carlin, host of “Common Sense” and “Hardcore History” (the show I mentioned in my last blog post) and he has been talking about the issue of government abuses for a very long time. He recently recorded a very good episode called “The Big Long Surveillance Show” that breaks down what happened with these NSA leaks as well as its  moral and political implications. I really recommend it and you can listen to the episode directly here or subscribe to his podcast on iTunes.

One of the main questions that Dan Carlin asks is this:

Is it more important to keep your oath of secrecy than it is keep your oath to uphold the constitution of the United States?

When asked in this fashion, this moral dilemma seems like an easy question to answer. However in reality, this decision is probably the most difficult choice that a politician, government worker (or anyone else) has to make. All politicians and military personnel all take an oath to defend the US Constitution above all else “against all enemies, foreign or domestic” and sometimes I wonder how serious they take it. In an ideal world making a principled stance for the sake of the values you and your country (supposedly) stand for would be the norm. However making that kind of decision against your government would not only be career limiting… but career ending with the potential of being targeted with a whole manner of charges. Edward Snowden made the decision to inform the American public what was being done at their expense with this program because it systematically was taking liberties (pun intended) with their constitutional rights. That for him, was the ethical thing to do regardless of the personal costs. If you’d like to see more on what motivated him to release information about “the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history”, be sure to read this QA session where  Snowden answers questions from the general public about the specifics of his whistleblowing.

I understand however, that there are reasons why things are kept secret! The public knows that there is a reasonable amount of secrecy that is needed within the government. However, the question is; was disclosing the existence of the PRISM program a threat to national security? The very nature of that question is a very difficult one. When you look further into the accusations that exposing a government program with questionable constitutionality is treasonous; you need to ask yourself a couple of things:

  1. Are the rights enshrined in the Constitution truly inalienable, not granted by the State but are inherent in every human being?
  2. Is there an asterisk on that piece of paper that says: *Can be violated for the sake of national security?

Dan Carlin tries to tackle this national security question by pointing out something that he and the rest of the American public has seen time and time again:

The more we go down this road of trying to protect ourselves, the more we destroy the very ideals that make us worth protecting in the first place

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “You need to give up your rights in order for us to protect you from INSERT SECURITY RISK?” Chances are you have, but the sad part about this is that the question isn’t even being asked anymore. Even asking the question “Why must my rights be given up to thwart these risks?” is scoffed at as if the asker couldn’t possibly understand. There is a reason why there are limits to how you can search and survey others; you need to remember what you are protecting and to balance the carrying out of justice with the well-being and privacy of others. Without limits to what the Government can do (both on paper and from an active citizenry) we have abuse and unchecked power.

To bring this all home, I’d like to share with you a short CNN video featuring one of Edward’s newest fans: Steve Wozniak (Co-founder of Apple). For starters, I have no idea why they chose to title it “Wozniak on NSA: I feel a little guilty” (for creating computers that allowed this kind of surveillance); he actually summed up the issue very concisely! When you look at the facts and remove the biases that we have in favor or against government, this is supposed to be a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”, “that means we own the government, we pay for it” and what essentially is happening here is a violation of rights that is incredibly hard to justify. Given everything we know about the situation we all have found ourselves in… I guess the final question we need to ask ourselves is: who controls who?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this and thank you for making it to the end of this post… it was a long one! Be sure to let me know in the comments section what you think and to share it with others.

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