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The Edward Snowden Case

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The Edward Snowden Case

The Official Secrets Act was initiated in the United Kingdom in 1889 to establish

protection of governmental secrets and classified information; therefore, a punitive

recourse for a violation thereof was adopted (Feur, 2015). The Espionage1 Act of 1917

was designed to protect the United States (US) government from spies and individuals

who may choose to leak confidential information without authorization by effectively

criminalizing these acts in order to protect national security. The salient and common

denominator between the aforementioned acts centers on an aspiration to dissuade

individuals from dissidence and potentially dangerous acts of disloyalty. Individuals who

violate the Espionage Act may be incarcerated for a period up to ten years for each

count. This particular act has been brought to the forefront of political controversy and

criminal justice by virtue of the fact that spies and traitors are subject to the same

punitive consequence. The leaking of confidential government information by means of

‘Wikileaks’ became highly popularized in 2010 when Manning chose to release

numerous classified US documents. In 2013, Edward Snowden chose to copy 1.7

million top-secret government documents on a flash drive, and he leaked approximately

200,000 US government secrets to members of the press (Toxen, 2014). Snowden is

charged with admittedly committing acts of espionage by leaking classified government

information with full knowledge that the surveillance was authorized by all three

branches of the US government (Sagar, 2015).

As a result of Snowden’s actions, foreign powers gained increased intelligence

regarding the US capability to gather information necessary for national security.

1The term espionage refers to acts in which information is obtained from a foreign
government by means of spying.

Snowden’s supporters assert that these leaks are in alignment with the First

Amendment rights whereby freedom of speech and the press are guaranteed.

“Although the government is granted broad power to keep secrets, the press is given

similar latitude to reveal them” (Feur, 2015, p. 95). As such, a portion of the population

does purport that the leaking of confidential government secrets provides a system of

checks and balances that, by virtue of the transparency afforded by the leaks, ascribe

accountability to the US government.

Trends and Impacts

It is imperative to note that communications surveillance is certainly not a recent

trend (Sagar, 2015). In fact, this trend is deeply rooted in history given the fact that

communication transfers by means of modes of transportation such as horses, boats,

and ships were often intercepted and subject to searches as bags were opened without

authorization and the government embargoed2 ships. By 1653, the English had

implemented a system whereby ‘spymasters’ operated from a secret office to open and

review letters that appeared suspicious. This system served as the first official form of

surveillance that targeted communications. “It was only in the early twentieth century –

when technology shrank distance and foreign entanglements grew – that the need for

consistent surveillance began to be felt” (Sagar, 2015, p. 146).

The ‘Black Chamber’ was initiated after World War I to initiate communications

surveillance of diplomatic affairs, and ten years later, the Signals Intelligence Service

was adopted prior to World War II. Today, the National Security Agency (NSA) serves

as the primary employer for over 38,000 individuals by means of ‘supercomputers’.

2In this context, the term embargo refers to a government order that prevents commercial
ships from leaving the port of departure.

Technological advances have impacted the efficiency of surveillance efforts through

enhancements in the speed of information transfer, data storage, and the ability to

capture inter-state communications. Despite these advancements, the US remains

subject to evasive means by which terrorists communicate. For example, Bin Laden

largely relied on couriers, thereby bypassing advanced methods of surveillance.

Enhanced capabilities related to communications surveillance positively impact

the safety of US citizens; therefore, proponents advocate for continued advancements

and monitoring to mitigate the threat of terrorism (Sagar, 2015). Despite the potential

for increased security, opponents express concerns regarding the impact of such

policies on conformist behaviors among citizens. Moreover, opponents purport that

civilians are compliant as a product of fear that results from an acute awareness of the

fact that correspondence is monitored. Dissidence is not eliminated through

surveillance; however, individuals who are inclined to engage in associations with

extremist groups are certainly more likely to be monitored closely. “Why must a liberal

democracy refrain from monitoring extremist groups such as neo-Nazis and

anarchists?” (Sagar, 2015, pp. 149-150).

Ethical Issues

Snowden’s supporters advocate his decision to leak the National Security

Agency (NSA) documents due to ethical concerns regarding the NSAs surveillance of

citizens’ telephone calls and email correspondence (Stein, 2016). According to

Snowden and those who support his actions, US citizens had a right to know that their

individual privacies were violated as a product of sweeping surveillance. However,

Snowden’s leaks divulged secretive governmental information regarding NSA actions


related to spying on the Islamic State group (ISIS) and other adversaries such as China

and Russia. “Whether Americans needed to know about congressionally authorized

foreign intelligence-gathering activities that help protect the nation from subversion or

attack is far less certain” (Stein, 2016, p. 18). While Snowden perceived that he was

merely obliging his duty to share pertinent information as per his Constitutional rights,

national security was clearly compromised as a product of these unauthorized leaks of

classified information.

Government officials assert that it stands to reason that authorities are at liberty

to obtain and collect data regarding telephone and email correspondence in order to

protect citizens from the threat of terrorism assuming that safeguards are in place to

protect the privacy of the innocent (No Sympathy, 2013). As such, the ethical

deliberation regarding an ‘appropriate’ level of surveillance remains controversial.

Scholars have contended that most effective method by which this issue may be

resolved centers on comparing the imperative nature of potential threats versus

personal interests (Sagar, 2015). The threat of terrorism and the subsequent effects of

this violence against humanity underscores the critical need to monitor perceived

threats for the beneficence of civilians. Many officials have asserted that national

interests of security and protection of civilians supersede personal interests. Snowden

clearly weighed the ramifications of his disclosures in light of the shared interests of US

citizens. In doing so, Snowden concluded that the acts of surveillance were more

offensive than the threats to national security. In essence, one man chose to act as the

collective conscience of the US despite the potential impacts on the lives of civilians.

Individual and Organizational Actions

A longitudinal study was conducted to examine the effects of he national interest

in privacy and protection as a result of the Snowden case (Preibusch, 2015). The

researcher found that individuals did not significantly alter their technology behaviors

despite the fact that public awareness was raised in regard to communications

surveillance with one exception. “Snowden’s revelations brought few new users to

privacy-enhancing technologies; anonymizing proxies experienced increased numbers

through 2013” (Preibusch, 2015, p. 55). As such, individual reactions to the Snowden

case were largely framed by dialogue, as opposed to actions, regarding ethics and


Despite the lack of action on the part of individuals, President Barack Obama has

commissioned five security and policy experts with the task of analyzing the surveillance

programs to provide informed recommendations regarding spying on non-citizens and

the collection of telephone records, as covered in Sections 702 and 215, respectively

(Childress, 2015). While most of the efforts have not materialized into actions to the

current date, President Obama has effectively provided safeguards requiring that data

collected from US and non-US citizens must be deleted after five years of collection if

the information is not deemed to be important. In essence, governmental officials are

working towards actualizing the goal of balancing the right to privacy with the interest of

national security.


Childress, S. (2015, February 9). How the NSA Spying Programs Have Changed Since

Snowden | United States of Secrets | FRONTLINE | PBS. Retrieved from


Feur, K. (2015). Protecting government secrets: A comparison of the Espionage Act and

the Official Secrets Act. Boston College International & Comparative Law

Review, 38(1), 91-127.

No Sympathy for Snowden. (2013). National Review, 65(13), 13-14.

Preibusch, S. (2015). Privacy behaviors after Snowden. Communications Of The

ACM, 58(5), 48-55. doi:10.1145/2663341

Sagar, R. (2015). Against moral absolutism: Surveillance and disclosure after

Snowden. Ethics & International Affairs (Cambridge University Press), 29(2),

145-159. doi:10.1017/S0892679415000040

Stein, J. (2016). No country for Edward Snowden. Newsweek Global, 167(14), 18-19.

Toxen, B. (2014). The NSA and Snowden: Securing the all-seeing

eye. Communications Of The ACM, 57(5), 44-51. doi:10.1145/2594502