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The Perils of Putting a Label on Edward Snowden

This is part of our special coverage Snowden: The US is Watching You

Edward Snowden, the man who revealed the existence of surveillance programs run by the the United States National Security Agency (NSA) has triggered divisive public and media debate. Is he a traitor? A hero? A fugitive? Or a spy? How should his actions be described?

When Glenn Greenwald published an article about NSA surveillance on 6 June, 2013, opinion initially focused on the information itself. However, the topic of interest quickly changed when the newspaper revealed its source on four days later. The man became more important than the information, and Edward Snowden became the subject under debate.

On 23 June, 2013, as Snowden left Hong Kong for Moscow, discussion became fervent about categorizing the tech specialist. For some, he was a fugitive. For others, a spy. He escaped the arrest warrant issued two days previously by the United States, and has allegedly given information to Russia.

Many people, including journalist Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell), are asking the question:

@blakehounshell: OK @ggreenwald and @attackerman is Edward Snowden still a ‘whistleblower'?

Edward Snowden. Capture d'écran de la vidéo de son entretien via

Edward Snowden:  screen-shot from the video of his interview by Laura Poitras

Given the lack of an official definition, it is up to each individual – including journalists – to decide for themselves how to label Snowden's actions. He is not only the man who revealed the surveillance program, he is also the man who has raised questions about our role as citizens. His life has become a symbol in itself.

Whistleblowing: a moral choice

A whistleblower, the term invented in the 1970s by Ralph Nader to avoid the negative associations of ‘mole', ‘informant’ or ‘snitch', is someone who is aware of a government's wrongdoing and decides to alert the public to it.

As Snowden said during an interview with the Guardian:

It was seeing a continuing litany of lies from senior officials to Congress – and therefore the American people – and the realization that that Congress, specifically the Gang of Eight, wholly supported the lies that compelled me to act. Seeing someone in the position of James Clapper – the Director of National Intelligence – baldly lying to the public without repercussion is the evidence of a subverted democracy. The consent of the governed is not consent if it is not informed.

From this viewpoint, the perspective of the citizen, author and cryptography expert Bruce Schneier argues in favour of whistleblowers on his blog:

Whistle-blowing is the moral response to immoral activity by those in power. What's important here are government programs and methods, not data about individuals. I understand I am asking for people to engage in illegal and dangerous behavior.

Such behaviour puts whistleblowers at odds with powerful institutions. They distance themselves from a system which they judge to be unfair or wrong, and label it as such. This action is a message in itself: It is a reminder that a democratic government is not only relevant to a small group of people, but the whole population. It is a reminder that each citizen has a role to play.

Edward Snowden explains that his acts were guided by his conscience:

Citizens with a conscience are not going to ignore wrong-doing simply because they'll be destroyed for it: the conscience forbids it.

Receiving the message

The whistleblower is defined by his or her relationship with the public – an audience whose role is to look at the information in all of its elements. An audience which reacts according to its own perspectives and acts as judge.

First of all, the audience looks at the data revealed. This requires expertise and mediation on the part of journalists, who make a judgement as to the validity of the information. Governments also have to make this judgement. By accusing Snowden of spying, the United States invalidates the questions being asked by the countries involved, namely what type of information did the US collect on its allies.  The Nouvel Observateur quotes [fr] a European authority:

Si c'est vrai que les Américains ont espionné leurs alliés, il y a aura des dégâts politiques. Cela dépasse de loin les besoins de sécurité nationale. C'est une rupture de confiance et on est parti pour quelque chose de très sérieux.

If it is true that the Americans have spied on their allies, there will be political damage. It goes much further than the need for national security. It represents a breakdown in trust and that is something very serious.

Subsequently, interest turns to the messenger, and the efforts made to divulge the information. The reception of what Snowden has to say is also influenced by the approach he has taken. Why did he reveal this information? Why did he act illegally? Has he fled? Where? Why is he suspected of spying?

These questions help the public to make an informed judgement. The information revealed forms only one part of the whistleblowing – the way in which it is revealed by the whistleblower and presented by the receiver are also of great importance.

In a tirade against the normalisation of spying over the internet, Jacques Gaillard writes on Bakchich [fr]:

Mais l’abolition de nos jardins secrets est de nature à modifier à terme notre conscience de nous-mêmes, exactement comme un nouvel homme a surgi lorsque les miroirs ont été capables, enfin, de renvoyer une image très fidèle de notre visage (et même de notre nuque, si on a deux miroirs).

Je ne vois qu’une solution pour déjouer les pièges cumulés du business et de la National Security Agency : fabriquez-vous un « faux moi » sur les réseaux a-sociaux, faites des fautes d’orthographe pour laisser croire que vous êtes inculte et pauvre, exhibez des goûts de chiotte et inscrivez des morts au nombre de vos followers.

But the eradication of our secrets will modify our self-awareness over time, in the same way that a new humankind appeared when mirrors were finally able to show a very accurate reflection of our faces (and even the backs of our heads with two mirrors).
I see only one solution for finding a way around the traps of both business and the National Security Agency: create a ‘fake self’ on anti-social networks, make spelling mistakes to make them believe you are uneducated and poor, exhibit the worst of bad taste and add dead people to your followers.

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