by Lim Sue Qin
There is obviously no absolute answer here – grey areas are to be expected.
Here’s a breakdown of Edward Snowden’s background: He worked at the National Security Agency, with clearances for Top Secret information which he was supposed to protect and well, keep secret. On May 20, he fled to Hong Kong. He then met up with The Guardian journalists on 1 June, who subsequently published the first leak on 5 June. His leaks reveal how the United States has been conducting surveillance on her citizens, and how it has been spying on other countries including Britain and Germany.
The debate here is: is Snowden more right or more wrong in what he did?
The argument supporting his actions is clear. He was protecting the privacy and the right of the US citizen to know. The widespread surveillance of the US government, where it apparently forced the telecoms giant Verizon to hand over phone records of millions of American citizens, is arguably a breach of privacy.
According to Snowden,
“…I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”
The delicate balance between security and privacy comes into play here. This “massive surveillance machine” that the National Security Agency (NSA) is building has a main purpose: to maintain the security of the country. If the purpose to this spying is to secure citizen safety and future freedom, it is naïve to simply label such spying as wrong.
Furthermore, it should be made clear that Snowden leaked out two different kinds of information. One concerns spying on US citizens, the other the spying of other countries.
Although leaking of information about US surveillance on its citizens might not be downright wrong, leaking of US’ spying activities on other countries is certainly treason. It directly threatens the security interests of the US, and strains US ties with other countries.
Let’s be truthful and practical about this. Many speculate that every country does its own fair share of spying, much less a country of such influence and power like the US. In fact, spying could potentially avoid a diplomatic crisis created through false rumours because the government could easily corroborate with more reliable sources of its own – spies.
Surveillance is also perhaps justified given that US is such a large country which tends to attract the wrath of more than just one terrorist. Surveillance on its own people is a tool used to ensure the protection of its people.
Leaking of official secret government activities should only be justified in cases such as Project MKUltra, where human rights are grossly exploited, overlooked, or clearly abused.
By leaking top secret documents, Snowden reflects a breach of trust that was written in his contract. His ‘bravery’ for committing such an act can be further questioned when his act of fleeing is contrasted with other similar leakers like Daniel Ellsberg who gave himself up for punishment.
Considerations about the ethics of his actions are important, given that we are living in a digital age where anything can be easily traced with a few code-words. This Snowden episode is only a harbinger of what is to come in the future.
What if the same situation happened in Singapore? Would there be such an outpour of outrage, shock, anger and mixed emotions? If we ever experience such an incident, we will hopefully be sensible thinkers who dissect the issue and understand the reasons that justify the actions of policymakers before making our decision.