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Edward Snowden and the USA: A complicated relationship

It’s an exciting week at Stanford. This Friday, May 15, Edward Snowden (via live video) will discuss the ethics of revealing illegal activity in organizations and the societal role of whistleblowers as this year’s Symbolic Systems Distinguished Speaker.

The timing of Snowden’s talk could not be better. Last Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, one of the most influential judicial bodies in the country, ruled that the National Security Administration does not have the authority to collect massive amounts of metadata on phone conversations and digital interactions in the U.S.

The decision is a major validation for Snowden, who leaked documents describing this very surveillance program back in 2013. It’s safe to say that without Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle on the American government’s illicit spying, we would never have this ruling. With the Patriot Act up for renewal in June, Snowden’s actions might have also dealt the fatal series of blows to one of the most controversial laws in American history.

But one all-important question still persists: What’s next for Snowden? As he remains holed up in Moscow under political asylum, Snowden will see the discussion shift further from the NSA and more toward the ethics of his actions, which will likely come under even heavier scrutiny.

In an excellent interview with Snowden in Moscow, comedian John Oliver highlights the general lack of understanding regarding Snowden’s actions while also taking the former NSA contractor to task for the irresponsible manner in which he leaked information to journalists. In a sense, Oliver’s interview captures the essential dilemma that is Snowden: He both broke the law and should be regarded as a hero.

The idea of viewing Snowden as a martyr is tricky and fraught with peril, but we need to establish an incentive for scrutinizing “Big Brother” government policies to encourage future whistleblowers to act. Thus, it is crucial to maintain a distinction between the ethics of Snowden’s actions and his own motivations. In a hugely popular piece from last year, Princeton University professor Sean Wilentz argues that Snowden, along with other whistleblowers, Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald, choose to act out of paranoia and personal motivation as opposed to a genuine desire to improve upon the current governmental structure: “Regardless of whether any of these documents in any way compromised U.S. interests abroad, they were plainly not the revelations of ‘whistle-blowers’ seeking to secure Americans’ constitutional rights. They are the revelations of leakers, out to damage their bugaboo national security behemoth.”

But even if Wilentz’s assessment of Snowden is accurate, the fact remains that his actions have produced positive effects in the form of the aforementioned judicial rulings. Ultimately, we do not have a contradiction. We can absolutely celebrate the spirit of Snowden’s efforts in preserving the foundations of liberty without regard for his own personal motivations, and we can fully accept that he will not be exonerated, especially considering the precedent that exoneration would set.

Since we cannot expect the government to acknowledge that–sometimes–doing the right thing involves breaking the law, this burden should fall on the general populace. It should be on us to remember the significance of Snowden’s actions and develop a culture that recognizes the importance of making ethical choices, encouraging future whistleblowers to come forward.

Ultimately, the best hope for Snowden and the country in fostering this climate of celebrating whistleblowers rests with young people. A 2014 Pew research poll found that 57 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 believed that Snowden’s actions served the public interest, which was almost the exact inverse of the responses of those over the age of 65 (despite the fact that all demographics had a similarly negative few of the NSA). At this point, the promise of future heroes stepping up against the insurmountable mammoth that is the U.S. government rests with this youth movement and remembering the implications of Edward Snowden’s leaks in directing the conversation in a much-needed direction.

As Snowden “arrives” on the Farm this Friday through live video technology, these ethical questions and many others will inevitably come up and deserve much further scrutiny. For the time being, though, it is not unreasonable to shed the false dichotomy of Snowden being either a glorious hero or a nefarious traitor. He clearly stirred the country awake to some incredibly serious infringements on freedom, but he’s also an imperfect human being who made some mistakes in the process as well. At any rate, we cannot afford to forget the important policies questions and ethical quandaries that Snowden has raised in the last two years–celebrating these discussions will be essential in preserving civil liberties in the future.

Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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