Posted by: John Erickson | July 19, 2013

Whistleblowing, extreme transparency and civil disobedience

In her recent post Whistleblowing Is the New Civil Disobedience: Why Edward Snowden Matters the great danah boyd wrote:

Like many other civil liberties advocates, I’ve been annoyed by how the media has spilled more ink talking about Edward Snowden than the issues that he’s trying to raise. I’ve grumbled at the “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” reality show and the way in which TV news glosses over the complexities that investigative journalists have tried to publish as the story unfolded. But then a friend of mine – computer scientist Nadia Heninger – flipped my thinking upside down with a simple argument: Snowden is offering the public a template for how to whistleblow; leaking information is going to be the civil disobedience of our age.

For several weeks I’ve debated with friends and colleagues over whether Mr. Snowden’s acts indeed represent civil disobedience and not some other form of protest. I’ve argued, for example, that they might not because he didn’t hang around to “face the consequences.” danah’s post provoked me to examine my views more deeply, and I sought out a more formal definition (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) to better frame my reflection. Based on how Mr. Snowden’s acts exhibit characteristics including conscientiousness, communication, publicity and non-violence, I do now see his whistleblowing as an example of civil disobedience.

Conscientiousness: All the evidence suggests that Mr. Snowden is serious, sincere and has acted with moral conviction. To paraphrase the Stanford Encyclopedia, he appears to have been motivated not only out of self-respect and moral consistency but also by his perception of the interests of his society.

Communication: Certainty Mr. Snowden has sought to disavow and condemn US policy as implemented by the NSA and has successfully drawn public attention to this issue; he has also clearly motivated others to question whether changes in laws and/or policies are required. The fact that he has legislators from both sides of the aisle arguing among themselves and with the Omama Administration is testimony to this. It is not clear to me what specific changes (if any) Mr. Snowden is actually seeking, and he certainly has not been actively engaged in instigating changes e.g. behind the scenes, but I don’t think this is required; his acts are clearly about effecting change by committing extreme acts of transparency.

Publicity: This is an interesting part of the argument; while e.g. Rawls and Bedau argue that civil disobedience must occur in public, openly, and with fair notice to legal authorities, Smart states what seems obvious: to provide notice in some cases gives political opponents and legal authorities the opportunity to suppress the subject’s efforts to communicate. We can safely assume that Mr. Snowden did not notify his superiors at the NSA, but his acts might be still be regarded as “open” as they were closely followed by an acknowledgment and a statement of his reasons for acting. He has not fully disclosed what other secret documents he has in is possession, but it does not appear he has anonymously released any documents, either.

Non-violence: To me this is an important feature of Mr. Snowden’s acts; as far as we know, Mr. Snowden has focusing on exposing the truth and not on violence or destruction. This is not to say that forms of protest that do result in damage property (e.g. web sites) are not civil disobedience; rather, the fact that he did not deface web sites or (to our knowledge) violate access control regimes does qualify his acts as non-violent.

I have no idea whether Mr. Snowden read Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience or even the Wikipedia article, but his acts certainly exhibit the characteristics of civil disobedience and may serve as a “template” for whistleblowers moving forward. As a technologist, my fear is that his acts also provide a “use case” for security architects, raising the bar for whistleblowers who aim to help us (in danah’s words) “critically interrogate how power is operationalized…”

Note: This post originally appeared as a comment to danah boyd, Whistleblowing Is the New Civil Disobedience: Why Edward Snowden Matters.

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