Debate rages on internet ‘snooping’ revelations

To the media, the IT worker who exposed mass US surveillance of overseas emails and phone calls is a hero. To CIA bosses he is a traitor. Is whistleblowing always an act of bravery?

‘I do not expect to see home again,’ said the 29-year-old cowering in a Hong Kong hotel bedroom. He puts pillows along the bottom of the door to stop eavesdropping, and a uses a hood to cover his head and screen when he types in his computer passwords to defeat any hidden cameras.

Why is Edward Snowden, an IT specialist, taking these extreme measures? Because this young man revealed that America’s security agencies had routinely been surveying internet activity and phone calls far more extensively than previously thought. To avoid arrest in America, where as a former employee of the CIA his case is being examined as a criminal matter, Snowden says he fled to ‘one of the few places in the world that both could and would resist the US government.’

Is he being paranoid? Whistleblowers face hostility from former employers and often colleagues, because they are seen as disloyal. Many are also found guilty of breaking confidentiality clauses in their contracts or breaking laws designed to protect their country; then, if national security has been involved, they face long prison sentences.

Bradley Manning’s case is perhaps the most extreme example of whistleblowing in recent years: the young soldier says he wanted to combat America’s ‘bloodlust’ by downloading and sharing enormous numbers of military secrets about Iraq and Afghanistan. But at his current court martial, he has been denied a whistleblowing defence because the judge rules that issues of motives are irrelevant.

One of the most celebrated whistleblowers of all time, Mordechai Vanunu, was a technician who told British journalists about Israel’s secret nuclear programme. He went on the run in Europe but was kidnapped and taken back to Israel, where a court sent him to prison for 18 years.

Open and shut case?

Snowden says his disclosures were made ‘to protect basic liberties for people around the world,’ and by choosing to reveal his identity, he can attempt a public justification: his actions in making these leaks put him clearly on the wrong side of the law, but he argues it is hypocritical to accuse him of criminal leaking, he argues, because what the US government has been doing is so extensive and secretive.

Not so fast, his critics urge. ‘Most or all of this government activity has not only been legal, but could reasonably be anticipated as logical outcomes of the Patriot Act,’ wrote one technology expert yesterday.

So has he done the right thing? The practices he uncovered may be judged morally wrong or ethically dubious even if they are legal: So did he show moral courage, indulge a dangerous impulse to disclose matters best left to those responsible for public safety, or a combination of the two?

You Decide

  1. Can you imagine yourself as a whistleblower, a journalist reporting on this sort of disclosure or a chief of a security and intelligence organisation or a minister in the government affected?
  2. ‘In the internet age, the security services have to keep up with the criminals.’ True, false or only part of the picture?


  1. Make a presentation explaining why both the US security agencies and Edward Snowden see their side of the argument as patriotic.
  2. Design your own cartoon or infographic about this very complicated issue: you will need a good visual metaphor.

Some People Say...

“Even in cyberspace, America is the only superpower.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t think anyone would be interested in my calls or emails.
Me neither! And governments and security agencies tend to think it’s reassuring to say: ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.’ But Snowden says he wants to promote a broad public debate about the extent of government surveillance and its impact on privacy.
So he’s a rebel with a cause?
Most whistleblowers don’t start off as campaigners, but their revelations are seized on by those promoting a relevant point of view. And the media, of course, love whistleblowers, because they help reinforce the idea that a free press stands up to the powerful and protects ‘the little guy’ whether that means the ordinary citizen or the employee who finds themselves in possession of scandalous information.

Word Watch

Hong Kong
A former British colony, the island of Hong Kong is now a semi-autonomous part of China. It has an extradition agreement with the US, but the Chinese regime does have the power to block such requests.
Description of someone with a state of mind which distorts reality so that they wrongly believe that they are being persecuted or are under attack. This leads to extreme and irrational fears and suspicion both of other people and of organisations.
The Central Intelligence Agency is responsible for America’s security and intelligence gathering. The National Security Agency is the organisation responsible for surveillance of communications (in the UK, the equivalent is GCHQ).
Patriot act
US agencies had their surveillance powers enhanced after the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, in this and related pieces of law during the period since then.

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