Friday, September 23, 2016

Snowden: A Hero Or Traitor? Privacy vs. Security

Shortly after watching the new Oliver Stone film Snowden, I heard the news of bombs going off in New York City neighborhoods and an ISIL terrorist attack at a Minnesota shopping mall. Such terrorist attacks can color one’s view as to whether or not Snowden acted as a hero or traitor in his revelations concerning the mass government surveillance by United States government agencies.

In earlier blog posts I have written about privacy concerns vs. security, themes thoroughly explored in Snowden and Citizenfour (the more compelling Academy Award winning 2014 documentary), both of which I highly recommend. You should not, however, reach any conclusion as to whether or not Snowden is an ethical whistleblower or traitor simply based on these two films.

Both films make a strong case in support of a pardon for Snowden. The ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International are behind the campaign to pardon him.
 On the other hand, Donald Trump has called for his execution. While not going quite that far, Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor, is against any pardon for Snowden. While Goldsmith acknowledges that the Snowden disclosures have led to more transparency in how government agencies collect data (including passage of the USA Freedom Act and other government reforms), he questions how Snowden can justify the theft and disclosure of the vast number of documents that had nothing to do with the collection of personal data of Americans and disclosed highly classified intelligence operations.

This was dramatically portrayed in the Stone film when Snowden is sitting in front of a computer screen and clicks on a long list of documents and programs.  With a few simple keystrokes, Snowden downloads all of the programs onto a small SD card, inserts it as a replacement tile on a Rubik’s cube, and then he is off and running to Hong Kong with the highly sensitive stolen files. (At least that is how it is portrayed in the Stone film.)

According to the film, within a few minutes, Snowden had all he needed and more. But why did he download and disclose information regarding the MonsterMind program used to respond to cyber attacks, intelligence activities in foreign countries, and other NSA activities in support of national security?

Whether the quick download is a fiction of Oliver Stone or it actually took several months for him to download the sensitive data, Snowden collected and disclosed to journalists far more data than was necessary to impugn the overzealous collection of personal information by the NSA. 
According to the Pentagon, it was the largest ever theft of United States secrets, including about 1.7 million intelligence files. 

If Snowden had limited his disclosures to the NSA collection of metadata on United States citizens, then it might be easier to find more good than harm in such disclosures.  

So what do you think? Traitor or hero? Should Snowden be let back into the United States to stand trial for treason? Should he be pardoned? Should he serve jail time? Do you think Snowden really smuggled his information out with a Rubik’s cube?

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