Sunday, October 27, 2013

Snowden: Greater Threat to Whistle-Blowing than to the Government

Per this troubling news story, Snowden has some really heavy information. He insists it's encrypted and stored wisely, and that he'll reveal it only selectively and judiciously.
'"I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest," he told the Guardian newspaper. "There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is."'
I'm sympathetic to the goal of transparency. But I'm not sure I want an Edward Snowden determining what's harmful. Nor do I want an Edward Snowden assuming responsibility for encrypting and storing these documents. In a feat of power jujitsu, the whistle-blower has taken on the responsibilities of the institution, and while I lack confidence in the wisdom and competence of institutions, I have exponentially less confidence in the wisdom and competence of a Snowden.

Even if Snowden's completely sincere and his actions are immaculate, he'll still have done great harm to the future of whistle-blowing by bringing to light - for those of us predisposed to applaud whistle-blowers - conflicting moral issues not previously clearly seen. Many of us hearken to the image of a moral individual taking a stand against an immoral institution. That image is baked into the American psyche as an indisputable good. Those Nazi soldiers "just following orders" were morally obligated to disobey those orders, no?

The problem is that different people have differing notions of morality, and if every institution required the consent and approval of each individual, nothing would ever function (consider our Congress). Whistle-blowing should be reserved for only extreme evil, corruption, and immorality, but that's difficult to gauge when one's dander is up (and someone's dander always is). It's only clear in retrospect.

Many of us - at least those who don't run large institutions - have maintained an innate sense that whistle-blowers are good, and should never be thwarted. But along with the baby comes torrents of bathwater. Should one minor, unproven individual have the power to blow up an institution? And, furthermore, do we want individuals - even those as principled and judicious as Snowden claims to be - taking upon themselves the full brunt of that institution's power?

These are questions I'd never previously asked myself. But now whistle-blowing seems a much more nuanced scenario. Edward Snowden, by pushing these boundaries, has raised such questions even among those inclined to sympathize. In so doing, he's enduringly harmed the cherished institution of whistle-blowing. This episode has been an enormous boon for those who seek to hinder that sort of thing for all the wrong reasons.

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