Thursday, September 05, 2013

Whistleblowers, Snowden, the press: a global perspective?

The commentariat has spent a lot of pixels over the last couple of months discussing what information originating from NSA leaker Edward Snowden does and does not constitute “whistleblowing,” and therefore should or should not be published.

Is NSA revelation x “whistleblowing”? Then it’s okay and Snowden is a patriot.

Does x not constitute whistleblowing (in the author’s judgment)? Then either everybody knew this was going on and there’s no point in publishing it, or publishing the information is treason, Snowden is a traitor, and Glenn Greenwald and David Miranda are terrorists.

Here’s a random example of these sentiments:

There’s a lot of this stuff on Twitter, but bloggers are not immune to it.

As a non-American, I am a little bewildered by some of the assumptions underlying these arguments, which I will try to state as I understand them. Americans (and lawful permanent residents in the US) have been reassured that the NSA only spies on foreigners. Notwithstanding the fact that GCHQ may spy on Americans’ communications and cooperates closely with the NSA, this doesn’t reassure me much because as a nonimmigrant in the United States, I am not exempt from the NSA’s net. And after the latest revelations it looks like US citizens and LPRs aren’t very well protected either.

I’ll try to address some of the arguments I have seen.

It’s not whistleblowing when it’s about abuses by non-US agencies such as GCHQ.   Why should I care about that? Why should The Guardian, which is a Manchester based internet cafe, care? Should Americans ignore Russians who blow the whistle on abuses by the Russian intelligence services?

Everyone knows this is going on.   I agree that it’s not exactly shocking that US spy agencies spy on governments, organizations, and individuals. On the other hand, the exact details—who is spied on? how often? for what purpose—are certainly unknown to the public, and they are newsworthy. Those details may also be surprising or even shocking depending on what they are.

You might think that it’s acceptable for the US to spy on its enemies, including heads of state. And that it’s acceptable to spy on allies and other friendly governments. I think that it is certainly newsworthy that the NSA is doing so. Don’t forget that the NSA also spies on foreign individuals and private companies, people we might be more sympathetic too. We can all run the risk of protesting too much, but I’d like to know about all threats to my privacy, whether they are from the “good” or “bad” guys.

It’s their job to spy.   Sure. But in many cases it’s also illegal. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations protects diplomatic communications. The Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations bans spying on the UN. It would be silly to be extremely surprised that the US violates these obligations. On the other hand, it is also possible to earnestly condemn the spying or at least to want to know more about it. It may be legitimate to violate international treaties because spies gonna spy, but then it should also be legitimate to try to expose it.

American whistleblowing should only benefit Americans.   Perhaps governments and terrorists don’t have a right to privacy, but shouldn’t innocent individuals expect at least a little? Or even if you don’t believe in a right to privacy, I stand by the weaker claim that I have a right to know exactly how my privacy is being violated. It may be true that Snowden revealed information about the NSA’s activities in China to curry favor with his erstwhile hosts in Hong Kong, but I’m sure hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese people would be interested to know that the American government (in addition to the Chinese one; is it wrong to reveal that?) is spying on their text messages.


  1. Interesting points, but lots of typos and poorly constructed sentences... reads as a draft.

  2. There's a security of freedom/freedom tradeoff. The debate isn't whether Americans, or any civilians for that matter want to be spied on. The truth is that we do, and we tolerate small amounts of it all the time.

    So the question is: What is the optimal level of spying? But before we can even answer that, we need to define spying so we can address questions like, "to extent does the collection of metadata qualify as spying?" and so on.

    When I think of the NSA spying, I picture a large, middle aged man sitting in a cubical, duly clicking away at the keyboard, writing queries in an outdated database checking for red flags. Doesn't seem too scary to me.

    It's also fair to point out that the NSA claims their work prevented attacks of nontrivial magnitude. There's no way to verify this claim, but there's also no way to fully appreciate attacks that were never committed.

    Tricky subject, I don't know the answer.

    1. So the question is: What is the optimal level of spying?

      I would argue that the debate is whether or not domestic spying lacking any reasonable suspicion is constitutional.

    2. But I raised that question too, in a way! What does it mean to "spy"?

      Metadata is very impersonal. Moreover, it mostly just sits in a database. It's simply not true that information about any individual is constantly being viewed or shared.

    3. I would take issue with the statement that metadata is impersonal. Depending on the context, it can contain highly personal information (for example, if someone starts emailing the intake office at an alcohol rehab facility, or the personal email of their much-younger personal assistant--I'm sure you can insert your own revealing scenario here).

  3. So they are foreigners they have no rights doesn't seem like the idea of a good country that spreads freedom. Instead it makes the United States seem like an arrogant and bigoted country.

  4. Anonymous2:54 PM

    The issue as I see it comes down to one question which is: was the revelation of information done in good faith? I believe that if a person believes that the information they are revelation, i.e. they are blowing the whistle on something they feel is in violation of law, international or domestic, or in violation of their conscience, then they are safe from prosecution or persecution. But the revelation must be in good faith and must be done in a way that does not cause harm to those whose safety depends on that information, e.g. a mole, informant, etc. In Snowden's case I agree that he is a whistle blower. However, he also is supplying details of these programs that inhibit their ability to perform their federally and court sanctioned duties. His whistle blowing was important because it exposed the fact that the NSA programs overstepped their bounds, but the details of the spying, in regards to the implementation is the problem. Also, the fact he stole federal equipment, the 4 laptops, also makes him a felon prosecutable independent of the whistle blowing. I guess the final determination comes down to if one believes the revelations to be conduct unbecoming, i.e. whistle blowing, or a false alarm, i.e. treason.

    1. In many ways I find Snowden's character obnoxious. The decision to reveal this information to the entire population before he appealed to Congress seems immature. "I don't want to live in a society where x happens, so I better complain about it to everyone" doesn't sit well with me.

      I'm soft of the NSA for spying, but after some reflection, I do think Snowden really did have good intentions and really did speed up the public debate, which makes him a whistleblower in my book.

    2. Anonymous6:36 AM

      Clearly Jefftopia is speaking out of ignorance. He does not know who Thomas Drake is.

  5. Anonymous3:51 PM

    The Guardian is based in London, it hasn't been in Manchester for years.

    1. Anonymous4:34 PM

      That was a joke taken from an out of context tweet. The Guardian isn’t an Internet cafe either.

  6. This is a really poorly reasoned. For example: "It may be legitimate to violate international treaties because spies gonna spy, but then it should also be legitimate to try to expose it."

    So if the US learns that China is about to execute a number of dissidents by spying and then tries to warn them, it is legitimate to try to expose it since nations are not supposed to spy on each other, although they do?

    All governments spy. Their citizens want them to. US spying revealed and helped foil the millenium plot. Spying is something that can be abused. But all spying is not morally indistinguishable and all leaking of government secrets is not morally indistinguishable. Some is good and some is bad.

  7. Security, shmecurity. The government always claims it; and unfortunately Americans often follow suite. Next thing you know the government will claim the right to kill Americans without trial. Oh, wait...

    1. Cynics claim you can't trust the government, next thing you know they'll claim you can't even trust your own sense, not your sight, smell, hearing, even your own speech. Cartesian Doubt everywhere!

      Your argument is a slippery slope. May I also ask, what do you mean when you imply government can't be trusted? Can NASA and HUD not be trusted? What about local government? What about teachers or police officers?

      When you talk about government, you're really talking about individuals. Technically you can never actually trust "government" - it's not a decision maker, just a group of individuals.

      And if you can't trust certain government officials, why can you trust non-government officials? Seems like arbitrary line drawing. Seems like sensationalist journalism that focuses only on the failure and conflicts of government has unfortunately distorted your view. I'm sorry you've lost faith.

    2. Jacques2:01 PM

      No, you can't trust the government when the stakes are this high. That's why we have a Bill of Rights in the first place! Americans have by and large forgotten this.

      Why governments routinely abuse their power would require a treatise. In a nutshell, however, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts completely. Today, the level of power the American government possesses over its citizens is unprecedented. The potential for abuse is likewise commensurate. History shows the slippery slope when leaving governments to their own devices. For instance, remember the innocuous socialist dream that led to Soviet-style totalitarianism? One may think this time is different. Hindsight is 20/20, however. No matter how unthinkable, fascism here is not that far-fetched in the long run. Slippery slopes are funny that way. E.g., the manner in which protestors are treated does not bode well for our future. I have peacefully protested in the past; but, call me a coward, I wouldn't dare do so in the current climate.

      I even have to wonder at my stupidity for posting these comments. The feeling of freedom is hard to let go, unfortunately.

  8. Bill Ellis7:53 PM

    I consider Snowden a hero in the American Civil Disobedience tradition. It can be argued that the tradition holds that Snowden should face our justice system, but with the torture of Bradley Manning as an example of what our "justice" system is capable of...I, personally feel it excuses him from the obligation.

    There is no doubt that Solitary confinement the way it is commonly practiced is by any human estimation torture.

    We should all be deeply ashamed.