Edward Snowden: Not a hero


I am sorry to say that my opposition will not be writing the column with me this week. I am looking forward to discussing another issue with him in two weeks. The topic we had planned to discuss this week was Edward Snowden and whether or not we ought to consider him a hero.

Edward Snowden, a computer scientist and  former CIA employee, unveiled several National Security agency (NSA) programs as well as a large number of documents and data to three major media outlets, most notably The Washington Post. Since then, Snowden has become a figure of debate and controversy. Some argue that he went through the proper channels of attempting to redress the issues he saw when he came across surveillance programs he felt were immoral, while others, myself included, argue that he was not justified in dumping sensitive information onto the media.

Snowden caused operational and economic harm in his actions. The threats that the U.S. had been tracking have since learned about the surveillance and adapted. According to former NSA General Counsel Rajesh De, threats have changed strategies in the counterintelligence community because of Snowden’s actions. There are sophisticated international cyber threats, and there is a bit of mosaic theory at work here.

In mosaic theory, which appropriately describes how Snowden caused operational harm, several small pieces being aligned at the right time make sense of a greater picture. Programs that had nothing to do with American privacy interests were discontinued, the perfect example being a program used to collect real time intelligence for troops in Afghanistan. So, operationally, Snowden caused harm. Economically, Germany-U.S. relations have now been strained in discussions with ISIS and the economy. International businesses are using this negative cybersecurity attention to essentially beat down the American transatlantic system of data transfer. And as everyone from Stanford probably knows, big data has become the business of business.

Alternatively, he did shed light on the “Section 215 program” that definitely expresses a gap between what public law is and what the public understands. However, what statement are we making by lauding Snowden as a great civil-disobedient citizen who began his correspondence with the media under the pseudonym Cincinnatus?

In Livy’s third book of the History of Rome, we learn that Cincinnatus was a statesman and a diligent farmer who was appointed dictator for 16 days before returning to his farm. In what way can Snowden call himself Cincinnatus? We are not in an early Roman institutional construct in which a dictator is necessary in times of upheaval. The U.S. is a democratic republic, and I do not see the democratic tenets pursued and applied in one man’s making a decision for the entire nation.

After the announcement of three movies, several books and countless articles, is this celebrity who fled the country a hero? Are we to examine the relationship between Socrates, Ghandi, Thoreau and King and their strife and include  Snowden among them? I would like to allow Thoreau to conclude this week’s column, as he stated, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”


Contact James Stephens at james214 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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