An Ethical Evaluation of Actions by WikiLeaks and Snowden
The New York Times reports that while both Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks may both support the dissemination of government secrets, they seem to disagree on how best to do it.
On July 28, 2016, Snowden, the former government contractor who released a trove of National Security Agency documents and now lives in exile in Russia, credited WikiLeaks, a clearinghouse for similar disclosures, with furthering the cause of transparency but also criticized its unfiltered approach.
Snowden said on Twitter: “Democratizing information has never been more vital, and @WikiLeaks has helped. But their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake.”
His words prompted a swift and cutting reply from WikiLeaks, which had once come to his aid.
Snowden, it suggested, was trying to ingratiate himself with Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, just days after WikiLeaks had released embarrassing emails showing that Democratic Party officials had derided the campaign of her main rival in the primary, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. You may recall that I blogged about this very issue last week.
WikiLeaks is often criticized for releasing documents without editing or regard for the sensitive information they may contain. In hunting for its motive, a simple search of their website shows their “pride” in releasing the DNC emails. It indicates an egoistic thought process devoid of any ethical compass to guide them in determining “right versus wrong”; “good versus bad”; and whether the benefits of disclosure outweigh the costs. I’m not saying WikiLeaks was wrong in publishing hacked DNC emails. I’m simply saying it made no attempt to evaluate the consequences of its actions.
The ethical issue in both the Snowden and WikiLeaks cases is whether the ends justify the means. As for Snowden. we can’t ignore that he violated his promises and work contracts. He was a National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, working with Booz Allen Hamilton where he signed confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements. His decision to facilitate the release of NSA sensitive information violated the trust of the agency.
So what was Snowden’s motivation. Was it an egoistic one as with WikiLeaks? It’s not that simple. One viewpoint would be that the threat to individual privacy and the laws (both international and U.S.) justified becoming a whistleblower.
Snowden emailed and worked with Glenn Greenwald, a writer for Guardian US, to release the files. Greenwald later wrote a book about Snowden and the files, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.
Snowden’s emails to Greenwald showed that he struggled to overcome his instinctive hostility to whistleblowing and thought hard about how to do it responsibly. In his messages Snowden lamented the “divorce of power from accountability” in the NSA and U.S. government at large. He described a failed system of oversight in which a “federation of secret law, unequal pardon, and irresistible executive powers” is left unchecked. Snowden also lambasted the U.S. government for abandoning the rule of law. He told Greenwald that NSA espionage violates not only Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, but also the principle of equal protection under the law: the powerful and privileged enjoy privacy rights effectively denied the rest of us.
I have no respect for WikiLeaks because it acts in an irresponsible manner without regard for the effects of its actions on others. On the other hand, I have decided to give Snowden the benefit of any doubt and I am willing to accept that he had good intentions in leaking the confidential information. However, he put his own personal interests ahead of those of our government. He could have gone through channels and informed the proper authorities before turning over NSA sensitive documents. He should be willing to accept the consequences of his actions and, as the saying goes, “face the music”. That said, Snowden’s efforts shine a spotlight on improper behavior that has changed the manner in which privacy data is collected and stored and for that he is owed a debt of gratitude.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 9, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.