Edward Snowden is a 29 year old IT guy, the type of employee who usually remains hidden from the world, invisibly keeping the electronic gears of his employer turning. Like most IT guys, his work exposed him to information his employer considered confidential. Unlike most IT guys (though he's far from the first), Snowden elected to disclose some information about his employer's behavior that he found objectionable. That makes Snowden a whistleblower. What makes it newsworthy is that Snowden's employer was an NSA contractor, and the information Snowden disclosed was classified.
I wasn't sure how to react when I first heard this news.
On the one hand, if the NSA program was effective, and if (as the administration claims) it wasn't significantly infringing on American citizens' civil liberties – then Snowden's unilateral disclosure of the information was harmful to this country. I should point out something else that may not be obvious to everybody: Snowden couldn't possibly have known which information he had access to would be harmful to release (he claims to have carefully released only information that wouldn't hurt anyone).
On the other hand, if the NSA program was ineffective, or if American citizens' civil liberties were (or could) be infringed, then Snowden's actions were nothing short of heroic . He's sacrificing his own career, perhaps his American citizenship, and (if his own worries are valid) maybe even his life – all to help the rest of his fellow citizens.
And I didn't have enough information to know which hand to choose.
This morning I read this essay by Bruce Schneier, the clearest thinker I know on security-related subjects. He specifically calls Snowden an American hero, but his argument is much more general. Basically he points out that whistleblowers are our primary defense against an abusive government. That led me to ask myself an important question I hadn't asked earlier: am I more concerned about terrorism's effect on me and my fellow Americans, or about abusive government's effects? And the answer to that one is easy: I'm far more worried about the latter than the former. I have spent zero hours over the past ten years worrying about terrorism's effects on me, but hundreds of hours worrying about our abusive (and incompetent, and just plain stupid) government.
Mr. Schneier is right. Snowden is an American hero – even if the NSA program was effective and had no significant impact on our civil liberties. He's right on another count, too: we need more whistleblowers.
I wondered about two other aspects of the Snowden story, captured nicely by these two articles:
Doesn't the fact that the NSA trusted Snowden with classified data prove that the NSA is no good at keeping secrets? So why should I trust them to keep my data secret?
Snowden is worried about retaliation from the U.S. government. At first blush that sounds ridiculous – and then I remembered that our President has asserted his right to unilaterally kill American citizens on foreign ground, and he has actually done so, with drones. Hmmm...maybe Snowden is right to be worried!