Hero or Traitor? The Ethics of Snowden’s Surveillance Leak

In May 2013, Edward Snowden traveled from Hawaii to Hong Kong where he met with journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary director Laura Poitras. Since May, Snowden has released thousands of sensitive documents, revealing the existence of multiple surveillance programs, many run by the National Security Agency (NSA).

Snowden released numerous classified government documents to Greenwald and Poitras. He claimed that government agencies such as the NSA were abusing the power of mass surveillance. According to Snowden, these abuses were infringing on the rights of American citizens.

“Some of these things are abuses,” Snowden said in his June 6 interview with Greenwald. “These things need to be determined by the public, not by someone who was just hired by the government.”

When he was asked what drove him to reveal NSA mass surveillance, Snowden said, “If living unfreely, but comfortably, is something you’re willing to accept you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your paycheck for relatively little work against the public’s interest. But if you realize that that’s a world you helped create, and it’s going to get worse as the next generation extends the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression, you realize that you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what that is so long as the public gets to make their own decision about how that’s applied.”

While Edward Snowden only recently brought mass surveillance to the public’s attention, it has existed for many years.

According to a 2001 BBC documentary titled, “Q&A: What you need to know about ECHELON,” global surveillance began as early as the 1940s when the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand formed the UKUSA Agreement.

Also known as “Five Eyes,” this multilateral agreement established intelligence cooperation between the five nations. This resulted in the creation of a global surveillance network code-named “ECHELON” in 1971.

Initially, the ECHELON surveillance system was intended to monitor Soviet communications during the Cold War. By the 1990s, ECHELON was allegedly capable of monitoring up to 90 percent of all internet usage.

The United States government, according to a BBC correspondent, still refuses to admit the existence of ECHELON.

Some say that Snowden has put the American people in great danger, despite his intentions.

In a March 25 interview with Bret Baier of Fox News, General Keith Alexander, current director of the NSA, said some of the information Snowden has could prove dangerous, “especially to our military operations and those who are serving overseas.”

Others believe Snowden did the right thing by releasing the sensitive documents to the public.

“What was going on needed to come to light,” said David Sickler, a senior broadcasting and digital media major. “However, I don’t think he went about it in the best way. He should have gone through some more appropriate channels before sending documents to the media.”


Micah Howard, a freshman history major, said he agreed.

“The government’s response to him has been very telling. Overall, I agree with what he did. Perhaps it could have been handled better, but I think it was something the American people needed to know.”

What does this mean for Americans? Should the average citizen be concerned? According to Snowden, the answer is yes.

“Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded,” he told Greenwald last June. “It’s getting to the point where you don’t have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call. (The NSA) can derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.”

As a result of these statements, the Obama administration has fallen under a great deal of scrutiny. According to the BBC, widespread criticism has created a call for significant reform within Congress.

President Obama said in a speech in January that it remains necessary for the U.S. to continue collecting large amounts of data, but it must do so with respect for civil liberties. According to the New York Times, President Obama plans to ask Congress to end much of the NSA’s “systematic collection of data about Americans’ (phone) habits.”

The Obama administration has also received a great deal of criticism from the international community. Last year, Snowden’s files revealed that the U.S. has gathered intelligence not only from potential threats, but from foreign allies as well.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was furious to discover that the NSA had tapped her private cell phone. President Obama continues to defend the use of such intelligence gathering, claiming that it has aided in the prevention of terrorist attacks both foreign and domestic, reports the BBC.

Edward Snowden is currently a fugitive from the United States government. While he has been granted temporary asylum in Russia, he is still wanted on charges of theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified intelligence to an unauthorized person.

Michael Shoemaker is a senior history major and a reporter for Cedars. He enjoys playing guitar, reading whatever he can get his hands on and a hot cup of coffee.

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