Hero or Traitor?

Recently, I saw the name Edward Snowden in the news and that he was applying for Russian citizenship. From this, I remembered when I had studied the case about his actions in my Computer Science course, and it urged me to look further into why he made the decision that he did regarding national security.

Edward Snowden was a computer expert and former member of the CIA; in 2013, he released confidential government documents to the press about the existence of government surveillance programs. This breached the Espionage Act of 1917, and was considered illegal; however, he argued that he released the documents for the benefit of the public and their right to know the state secrets. It is questioned whether he acted as a hero for the public, or as a traitor to the government.

Snowden can be seen as a hero for exposing the government’s classified information about the National Security Agency, as he argued that he had “a duty to inform the public about actions that are made for and against them”. Whilst he exposed the NSA’s surveillance program, he was careful that he protected the national security of the US. He did not leak any details about the algorithms used, or the identities of the groups or individuals who had been targeted. Additionally, he risked his own freedom to give the information to the public, as he knew that he was creating controversy. By exposing the actions of the US government, he did not create harm to any individuals, rather he benefitted the public by allowing them access to secrets that the state should not have been hiding from them. He acted through public service, and with good morality, to educate the public on the actions that were being made by their leaders.

On the other hand, he clearly acted illegally and against the good of the US government. The Espionage Act of 1917 prohibits obtaining information relating to the national defence with intent to use it for the injury of the United States. His actions were contrary to the law, created by the United States, and he acted to explicitly harm the government. Furthermore, the way in which he released the information was irresponsible; he released the information to foreign journalists and newspaper editors, which burdened them with the responsibility to decide which information to release. This created danger of the editors releasing damaging information and not considering the full effects as their objectives are self-interested and not concerned about protecting US national security. A further implication of his actions is that it would lead to damaging relationships with foreign countries as a result of exposing the classified information. There could have been many unintended consequences, which he may have not considered, that could have been disastrous for the US national security. Following on from this, it could have created detrimental uncertainty within the US, which would not have benefited the public in the way that he intended.

Whilst Edward Snowden aimed to act for the benefit of the public, his actions were illegal and could have been dealt with in a more legitimate manner. He did not have the right to release the government’s information and did not consider the lasting consequences that the release could have caused. It is an interesting case of the argument behind public data and whether the public have a right to know how their government is acting. Is it ethical to provide public knowledge, even if this is done through illegitimate means?

Matilda, Deputy Head Girl

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