Edward Snowden is Public Enemy Number One, at least if the FBI is to be
believed. He is the spectacle-wearing geek who blew the whistle on the
US Government’s practice of monitoring the phone calls of ordinary
citizens as part of the ‘war on terror’. (To be fair, they are not
listening to the calls – but they are keeping a track of the numbers
dialed). For 7 weeks he has been living in Moscow airport hoping that
he will be granted asylum.
The Snowden case brings up a whole host of ethical issues. The charge
is not that he obtained the information by deception or theft – in fact
he had access because he was working for the CIA – rather that he was
not at liberty to disclose what he learned.
Snowden is claiming that he was entitled to reveal secrets because he
was responding to a higher call, what in Catholic Social Teaching is
called ‘the Common Good’. Whatever harm was done by breaching
confidences was outweighed (he claims) by the good of revealing (and, he
hopes, ending) the US Government’s secret surveillance.
We are becoming more and more familiar with the concept of the
‘whistleblower’ – someone from inside the system who makes public
actions that others would prefer were kept secret. Whistleblowers have
helped reveal the health cover-up by the tobacco industry, price
collusion that harms ordinary consumers, and cases of fraud in public
and private sectors.
We are right to be wary of a culture of silence. After all that was
what allowed horrific cases of child abuse in the Church to go
unchallenged for so long. The anger over the ‘Secrecy Bill’ being
proposed by the South African government is that it will make it even
easier for politicians to get away with corruption or poor service
delivery or nepotism. Silence has not generally served us well.
But does that mean that Snowden’s actions are automatically acceptable?
As a US Government employee he had pledged not to reveal state secrets
and so was breaching his contract. Before we say that such contracts do
not matter, let us remember that the confidential treatment of
information is the basis of many employment relationships. How would
you feel if the bank clerk at your local branch started sharing your
financial information with your neighbours (or your spouse!)?
There are three key issues here: intent, effectiveness and
proportionality. The same action may be justifiable if taken to correct
an injustice, but not if it is really intended to harm someone else or
to achieve personal gain. The bank clerk should reveal information
about money laundering but not because he envies the drug-dealer.
Effectiveness matters since one action (spilling a secret) is being done
to bring about another (changing public policy). If there is little
prospect of there being a positive consequence, the initial harm becomes
harder to justify. And it is important that the harm done is
proportionate to the good achieved. Snowden clearly felt that this
surveillance operation was so unwarranted that he should speak out
whatever the consequences.
As citizens, we do have a moral obligation to speak out (or at least to
think about speaking out). But we cannot do so lightly if that means
that we are also breaching the duties we have as an employee or a friend
or a confidant. Most moral decisions involve a lot of careful balancing.
Raymond has a background in modern languages, worked as an advertising
executive, as well as at Rhino Camp in Northern Uganda, with JRS. For
five years he was director of communities in the CAFOD network for the
whole of the UK. He has been director of the Jesuit Institute in South
Africa for the past four years.