The rapid increase in new digital technologies accompanied by the progression of media and communications have brought about moral, social and political issues, especially in the ethics behind government surveillance. These critical issues have sparked a wide spread debates in morality in social justice, social freedom and privacy, and digital censorship in the power of surveillance. With the current state of academic literature limited to Wikileaks, an international non-profit organisation which publishes networks of corruption that assist in US lead global war on terror and secrets leaked by anonymous sources, former CIA systems administrator, Edward Snowden, further expounds on these political and social changes in government surveillance (Lynch, 2014). Similar to WikiLeaks, Snowden questions the legality of the legal system and appeals to the public for global justice.
Morality in social justice – Hero or traitor?
Provocations in morality
Snowden caught the NSA spying domestically and considered this act illegal and unconstitutional as it was incongruent with the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the US Constitution CITE THIS. This exposure of the USA (United States of America) National Security Agency (NSA) not only marked a distinctive moment in modern history on the evolution of the internet but also earned him the title of civil disobedience by many.
Civil disobedience is defined as being defiant towards the law within the limits of fidelity to the law. This essentially means taking a non-violent approach in denying the commands of a higher power or government. Civil disobedience often occurs when the action of breaking the law is carried out in a public, non-violent nature.
Jeremy Waldron describes the law as a shared public code that offers a collective clear and cogent normative framework he further explains that the law binds a political community together by successful agreements on the shared public rule in order for society to flourish. Law breakers who avoids prosecution when breaking the law are essentially deemed as criminals.
King describes civil disobedience as law breakers enduring legal repercussions to express their respect for “highest respect for law”. In accepting given punishment even for an unjust law, law breakers, this would portray their fidelity for the basic legitimacy of the legal order.
However, with the intention of bringing about a change in the policies imposed by the government, John Rawls argues this act of public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political disobedient act to the law to the law as a sophisticated defence of conscientious law-breaking. Rawls assures that there is no difficulty in resorting to civil disobedience as a tactic for overturning an unjust and corrupt system. He notes that neither willingness not unwillingness to accept legal consequences marks a certain attitude towards the law. Unwillingness to accept the legal consequences does not necessarily mark fidelity to the law because a deviant may have other reasons for accepting the legal consequences as it might stand for a more strategical approach. Punishment for an offence may the foundational reason for the defiant to opposed whereby they seek to highlight this by breaching the law in question.
Brownlee offers a philosophical approach that examines the role of conscientious motivation in civil disobedience as a conscientious communicative breach of law motivated by genuine moral commitment.
Snowden was compelled by his moral obligation to engage in a politically motivated law-breaking. He explained that his actions are distinguishable from ordinary criminality and did not cumulate in reckless lawlessness. His actions questions liberal and democratic ideas about civil disobedience. Snowden understands that conscientious law-breaking is best “within the limits of fidelity to the law”. On this notion, selective law-breaking as part of a foundational appeal to the broader system of legality. Snowden intentions were acted as he believed that the terrible political injustices occurring should be brought the public attention and made the object of wide-ranging public awareness. His moral decision was act upon only after periods of introspection and reflection. Snowden understands that conscientious breach of the law performed with overall fidelity to the law and a willingness to take responsibility for action and accept punishment.
5Scheuerman supports this statement by noting that Snowden’s evasion of the country was carried out because of Snowden’s knowledge that he would not stand to receive a fair trial in the USA. He observes that by participating in the risk of his actions, he became complicit in the government’s attack on the rule of the law. If peaceful law-breakers are presented with a situation where punishments were made arbitrary to prevent potential future protestors from publicising their view, it would be justifiable to evade punishment.55
Joseph Raz argues that although Snowden performed a civil disobedient act by leaking the information unannounced and initially covert but he portrayed moral responsibility by acknowledging the act and reasoned why he undertook it.5
His punishment albeit not the one imposed by law, is still a great measure of lost and punishment.It has cost him his well-paying join and secure life along with his country, friends and family. It was worth noting that punishment through exile has outlined a moral justification for his actions. Through disclosing his identity, he reflects the willingness to the the risk and cost of being punished. This meant he had to endure the substantial loss of his citizenship and resident rights in the USA.
Snowden condones the violation of particular laws and policies solely due to their incongruence with more fundamental laws. In December 2013, he argues that his obligations to the US Constitution overrides any civil contract such as the government non-disclosure agreement he signed.16 Snowden’s actions should not be deemed as civil disobedience as they are morally justified. Snowden adopted the responsibility as a public official to exercise first-order moral reasoning about the NSA programs. He was sensitive to the information leaked and stood on the political grounds that the public are entitled to the informed about the policies that lack judicial and congressional oversight. The moral argument on personal privacy was that the public should not be overrun by policies without having an informed decision.
Snowden handled the information with great care and responsibility. He evaluated every single document he disclosed to ensure that they were in the public interest to avoid harming the people involved, contrary to how WikiLeaks dealt with sensitive information. This non-violent and selfless act reflects his purpose to peacefully transforming US policy. Snowden approaches the situation with non-violence which is essential to the issue at hand to avoid the harm of others whilst will pursuing the objective of persuading political powers of the need to correct the injustices in the law. Bedau aptly describes this type of non-violent public minded action as an ideal political discourse based on a rational exchange, tolerance, responsibility and patience. His willingness to act in the transparency of disclosing his identity to the public attest to his moral seriousness.
Snowden exposed his identity and sought moral justification by explaining that his reasons for leaking government information was to create awareness so the public are able to make an informed decision about these programs on the parameters of privacy and governance.
- Digital rights
- Privacy intrusion / freedom of speech
- Social changes
- New forms of social justice
- Public opinion
- Propaganda through digital censorship
- Security and freedom of speech
What is the balance between our right to privacy and the authority’s duty to protect us
Mohamed El-Baradei states that social media has emerged as the most powerful communication tool to deploy and conceptualise ideas which makes political waves within modern communication technology (El-Baradei, 2011). It is widely known that digital media has created a positive impact on society. This positive change constitutes as Liberation Technology” which is also referred to as information and communication technology used to expand political, social and economic freedom (Diamond, 2010: 70). Research have exemplified positive correlation between the internet and quality of political institutions. However, these results may be explained by the fact that democracies are more exposed to digital communications (Milner, 2006) and may not indicate a casual effect between the two factors.
To support organisation of local opposition and protest, information communication online can be sent to like-minded citizens from the comforts of their home. With an in increase in information transfer, domestic protestors are more likely to discover others with similar attitudes thus overcoming the problem collectively. Numerous polls were conducted after the Snowden leak in 2013. Rasmussen Reports discovered that fifty-nine percent opposed to the federal government secretly collecting personal data (Rasmussen Reports).
In 2007, BBC reported the increasing struggle to access websites detailing information independent of the regime, even when attempting to use proxy servers. Relating to the Snowden-NSA scandal, some hard disk containing Snowden’s material were destroyed as instructed by the Government Communications Headquarters (Harding, 2014). Several The Guardian journalist were detailed by government authorities (Devereaux, 2014).
WikiLeaks, an organization dedicated to global justice, broke the fiscal blockade of global capital through the power of cyber rebellion and the shinning light on freedom and censorship. Founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange explained that The West has was monopolised power through monetary tactics. Free speech in The West is worthless as it lacks power to lead substantial political changes. This is in contrast with other states such as China where pervasive censorship is implemented as speech still holds power (Assange 2010). WikiLeaks quintessentially illustrates that by destabilising power invokes the power to intercept the critical issue of transparency and censorship.
Digital media may be a powerful tool for those who aim to expand their political agenda or organise anti regime demonstrations. Digital censorship not only filters out identifying protestors and negative government content, it can also be used to push out pro-government propaganda to increase support.
Power in surveillance
Digital connectivity has the ability to facilitate the search for material unfavorable to political powers or the identification of individuals propagating online. This mechanism for attaining power and control is technologically and financially feasible for governments to store nearly complete records of data thus being able to track with precision an unimaginably large number of people.
Mass communication through new media may potentially enable rulers to assert control over the population via propaganda digital devices. New media potentially enables the control of information and may utilise this power as a tool to manipulate mass communication.
Snowden and WikiLeaks are often framed negatively when reported in the media (Hindman and Thomas, 2014). Several major journalist and media pundits frame him in a negative light and portray him as a narcissist. Journalists were more compelled to label him as a whistleblower rather than a hero. However, this is in contrast with global journalism where China Daily and Chinese microblog platform, Sina Weibo expressed solidarity and support to Edward Snowden for the courage to ‘expose US hypocrisy’ thus defining him as a hero (Wang, 2013).
Government surveillance argues that surveillance programs and implemented to keep us safe from terrorism however Snowden identified that mass surveillance NSA programs under the veil of countering terrorism have not shown any value in countering terrorist attacks. Government surveillance albeit implemented to increase security, has not only stripped the public of their online privacy but have imposed digital censorship thus altering the perception of implemented laws and free speech.
In conclusion, surveillance preys on the lack of privacy at the expense of the public’s liberty. Snowden has brought light to the civic rights in the world of metadata and surveillance thus giving citizens the opportunity and access to the information that they need to make smarter political choices. The fear of becoming a subject to the government holds fear, especially in this pivotal juncture where the cost of democracy is uncertain. The lack of legal regulation, and strong judicial oversight in the developing world have led to these really strong, outrages oversteps when it comes to surveillance. Snowden’s voice of reasoning appeals to individual conscientiousness in attaining global progression in the digital world.