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Revisiting NSA's Metadata Collection Program and Edward Snowden

Were His Disclosures in the Public Interest?

Reports that the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in light of the publication of his book, Permanent Record, which is  about his experiences at the NSA, raises the question once again whether he did the right thing by leaking confidential NSA surveillance data that violated the privacy rights of Americans. The DOJ seeks to recover the proceeds from the sale of his book because Snowden failed to submit it for pre-publication review in violation of his alleged contractual and fiduciary obligations.

More than six years after the leak, questions arise once again about whether his actions were ethical. Snowden’s case is one where we should ask “do the ends justify the means?” In other words: When is it ethically appropriate to violate the law to act for a greater purpose? Did Snowden’s goal of informing the public about threats to their privacy justify the way he leaked information about the NSA’s surveillance program? Did he do all that was necessary to internally blow the whistle to his superiors before blowing the whistle externally and doing real damage to the interests of data security in the U.S. and around the world.

Interestingly, the Trump administration seems to be pushing to renew a domestic phone-surveillance program that was suspended because of compliance issues with respect to aiding terrorism investigations. Trump believes it’s a tool that serves a legitimate purpose. Congress is not so sure. It’s hard to believe we’re even having this conversation in light of the Snowden affair.

Snowden has claimed in his defense that his actions would improve societal well-being by revealing and ultimately dismantling the NSA’s metadata collection programs. He stated there are moral obligations to act when the law no longer reflects the morality of the society it governs, which is another way of saying sometimes it’s necessary to violate the law for the greater good. Ethically, he invoked the “kill the messenger” defense: Don’t blame me for the government’s wrongdoing. I’m just the bearer of the bad news. Q mark

Snowden says he would return to the U.S. if he were given a fair trial. In a recent interview with “CBS This Morning,” he alleged the U.S. has not agreed to give him a public interest defense, which would allow him to attempt to prove that his leaks were for the greater good.

Though Snowden acknowledged that “it’s not hard to make the argument that I broke the law” with his 2013 document dump, he argued that the government has not been able to show that he harmed national security.

In his own words, Snowden raises interesting questions that should be considered in a broader context: “Was it better for the United States? Did it benefit us or did it cause harm? [Government officials] don’t want the jury to consider that at all. They want the jury strictly to consider whether these actions were lawful or unlawful, not whether they were right or wrong. And I’m sorry, but that defeats the purpose of a jury trial.”

Should the public view Snowden as a hero or villain? Did he act morally? Public sentiment seems to be mixed on this issue. One thing is for sure. He didn’t do everything possible to change the minds and hearts of those in the NSA and government at large to shine a spotlight on what was improper surveillance practices.

My view is that Snowden may have done the right thing and even for the right reasons but he did it in the wrong way so it brings into question whether it was the right thing to do.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 20, 2019. Dr. Mintz recently published a book titled Beyond Happiness and Meaning that explains the ethics of personal relationships,  workplace interactions and on social media activities. Visit his website, sign up for his newsletter, follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.