So I don’t really have a ton to say about the surveillance state that’s enlightening other than “it’s bad and it should not be that way” so I won’t linger on it except to say, it’s bad and it should not be that way.

However, I do have brief thoughts about Edward Snowden, so I will share them.

Whistleblowers are people, and are therefore flawed, and do things for reasons in addition to/instead of “the public good.” Additionally, the kind of person who becomes a whistleblower is likely a person that feels less constrained by certain kinds of social consequences or has an above-average desire for a certain kind of attention or regard. Therefore, it is not surprising to see many whistleblowers going about their whistleblowing in ways that are a) contrary to their own seeming best interests and/or b) contrary to the public interest.

In the case of Edward Snowden, he actually did a lot right – he self-censored his disclosures, he disclosed to a genuinely public-spirited journalist (albeit an excessively priggish and intemperate one), he used encrypted email, he he left the country prior to disclosing his own identity. However, he made two major interrelated errors through his disclosure of his identity, one contrary to his best interest, one contrary to the public interest, that showcases how difficult it is to get genuinely “good” whistleblowers, in the sense of whistleblowers who are good at whistleblowing.

The key is where and when he disclosed his identity – that is, June 9th, in Hong Kong. The “where,” as we have seen, was ill-advised – Snowden is now without save haven and may have to resort to asylum in a nation that likely has a vastly worse human rights record than the country he is fleeing on the basis of exposing human rights violations, an ironic fate. But the when is the problem that has a larger effect on the public. Snowden disclosed his identity to the public only four days after the initial release of the story, barely enough time for the story to register with the larger public and not nearly enough time for the full consequences to be digested and begin causing political pain. By disclosing his identity when he did, he inevitably made the story about himself, which diverted scarce public attention away from the disclosures themselves and helped relevant political officials avoid or delay scrutiny.

What Snowden should have done was delay disclosing his identity until a) he was safe and sound and b) when it made strategic sense to further the public interest. If, say, a month or two or three after the disclosures, the story began to “run out of oxygen,” Snowden’s revelation of his name and identity (had it not already been revealed unwillingly) would have reignited interest in the story and perhaps kept focus on the disclosures. Instead, he trampled them, giving the notoriously fickle and shallow mainstream media a simple and melodramatic personal saga to follow at the expense of a complex and troubling policy issue.

Now, why did Snowden do this? In my humble experience having dealt with would-be or self-proclaimed whistleblowers, my best guess is ego. People who tend to view themselves as whistleblowers tend to view themselves as heroic, very important, crusaders, victims, martyrs – and to varying extents there is truth in those labels. But more often than not the same kind of impulses that lead individuals to whistleblowing are the same impulses that lead them to do so in ways that are self-defeating. Edward Snowden is better than many, but wasn’t good enough.

 

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