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Edward Snowden talks ethics of whistleblowing

By Victor Xu. This article was first published on Stanford Daily.

Edward Snowden, former NSA infrastructure analyst turned whistleblower, spoke on May 15 to Cubberley Auditorium to discuss the philosophical tensions of whistleblowing and government surveillance. The 2015 Symbolic Systems Distinguished Speaker, Snowden spoke via video conference from Moscow.

Professors of philosophy John Perry and Kenneth Taylor moderated the discussion, part of which also served as a recording of “Philosophy Talk,” a nationally-syndicated radio program which grapples with problems in philosophy and how philosophy relates to our everyday lives.

After brief introductions by Perry and Taylor, Snowden addressed the dilemmas in whistleblowing and his thoughts on his situation. Taylor asked whether he sees himself as a hero or a traitor, considering the various depictions presented by the government and media.

“This is a really common question that’s asked a lot,” he said. “I think it’s got one of the least interesting answers. I don’t think about myself or how I will be perceived. It’s not about me. It’s about us. I’m not a hero. I’m not a traitor. I’m an ordinary American like anyone else in the room. I’m just trying to do the best that I can.”

Snowden, who currently resides in Russia under asylum, proceeded to discuss the cost-benefit analysis that whistleblowers must consider before leaking information.

“I certainly paid for it,” he said. “I lived in Hawaii, had a wonderful girlfriend, a home, a happy family, a successful career. To walk away from that it does require a real commitment to something…I think the driving principle is that you have to have a greater commitment to justice than a fear of the law.”

Perry and Taylor asked whether Snowden was reluctant to “break the law.” Discussing his personal motivations for leaking the NSA documents, Snowden said he was motivated more by “self-interest” than altruism, as he felt that he would improve societal wellbeing by revealing and ultimately dismantling the NSA’s metadata collection programs. He added that he feels there are moral obligations to act when the law no longer reflects the morality of the society it governs.

“When legality and morality begin to separate, we all have a moral obligation to do something about that,” he said. “When I saw that the work I was doing and all my colleagues were doing [was] being subversive not only to our intentions but contrary to the public’s intent, I felt an obligation to act.”

Snowden spoke at length about the institutional failures in the U.S. government that allowed for the NSA activities in question to occur.

“The courts were frozen out, the majority of Congress was frozen out, the populace was frozen out,” he said.

He added that he attempted to reintroduce this system of checks and balances—which failed in the case of the NSA—in his own methodology for releasing the documents. By involving conflicting parties in the press and the government, Snowden said he hoped to serve the public interest: bringing attention to privacy issues while also mitigating security risks.

“I never published a single document on my own because I believe that the model, the ideal of American government is actually quite a shrewd one,” he said. “I tried to emulate the model of checks and balance. Instead of making a unilateral decision, that ‘The world must know,’ I worked with the free press, institutions that we trust, American journalists.”

At various points, Snowden expressed concern that the world as a whole is moving toward increased government surveillance at the expense of privacy, citing recent measures in France among other nations. He cautioned against acceptance of this trend and frequent justifications used by governments, such as heightened security. Citing the NSA leaks, he said that there was no clear benefit, while the privacy costs were great.

Snowden also addressed several issues related to the Internet, including expectations of privacy on the web, Chelsea Manning’s role in leaking confidential government documents to WikiLeaks and new liberation technologies.

“The Internet goes into our homes and also into the confines of our mind. That’s where we confide in friends, that’s where we express ourselves, that’s where we develop our thoughts. It’s where we decide what we believe in and who we want to be.”

On the role of WikiLeaks, he said, “Much like with whistleblowing, if all other parts of the system fails, there’s a fallback [in WikiLeaks]. There’s an ultimate choice that can provide real, unvarnished truth in the most extreme circumstances.”

Snowden recommended two major policy changes: ending mass surveillance and better protecting whistleblowers. On the first point, he cited the “infective” nature of surveillance projects and the ineffectuality of the NSA’s data collection in producing any concrete security outcome. On the second point, he argued for creating independent agencies staffed by civil liberties advocates to handle cases like his.

“If I had taken these documents to Congress, I would’ve gone to jail,” Snowden said, alluding to the massive costs facing whistleblowers.

After the first hour, the “Philosophy Talk” segment concluded. Snowden stayed for another half hour to answer questions from the audience, with topics ranging from his personal life in Moscow to the working environment within the NSA.

Snowden ended the discussion with a hope that he might one day return to the United States, although he said he was not exactly optimistic at the chances.

“If there’s any question, if the opportunity was presented, I would of course come home,” he said. “Because that’s where I live, that’s where my family is.”

The full recording of “Philosophy Talk” will be available the week of July 3 on radio stations nationwide.


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