Professor Shannon Vallor’s theoretical framework of technomoral virtue ethics identifies character traits that can be cultivated to foster a future worth wanting in an environment of (mostly digital) emerging technologies. Such technologies and increased citizen participation in the new digital environment have reconfigured what is possible in policing and intelligence-gathering more quickly, perhaps, than sober and sensible policy reflection and formulation can keep pace with. Sensational and dramatic, seismic and devastating, the Snowden disclosures represent a particular expression of dissent against American intelligence community exploitation of emerging technologies in undertaking mass surveillance on a global scale. Responses to Snowden’s actions, and perceptions of the (dis)value of the disclosures he made, are polarized. Polar opposites equate to vices in the Aristotlean view that posits virtue as the middle way. Here, the theoretical framework of technomoral virtue ethics is used for objective evaluation of Snowden’s asserted motivations and documented actions against the benchmark of good cyber-citizenship that the framework describes. The fact that Snowden’s account is strongly disputed by the U.S. Government does not in and of itself invalidate a theoretical evaluation. It is not the probative value of Snowden’s account that is being tested, but how the narrative presented measures up to an ethical framework.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Data and material availability
All data from publicly published sources.
Case No. 1:13 CR 265 (CMH) United States District Court for Eastern District of Virginia. Retrieved from http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/documents/world/us-vs-edward-j-snowden-criminal-complaint/496/ (accessed 10 April 2020). Title 18 of the U.S. Code, ‘Criminals and Criminal Procedure’, is accessible at https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/part-I (accessed 10 April 2020).
Claims that lives were lost or would be seriously imperilled by Snowden’s actions cannot be verified; no substantive evidence has been made public to substantiate the claims (Scheuerman 2014, p.614; Munro 2018, p.110). By definition if such evidence existed, it would be a classified secret. Ironically, one such claim was made by a senior political figure following a confidential briefing to members of the U.S. Congress House Intelligence Committee, and thus itself an unauthorized leak of classified information (Risen 2014). The unredacted text of the 2016 Congressional Review makes reference only to ‘the loss of intelligence streams that saved American lives’, (p.i). Former FBI Director James Comey has stated that the U.S. is ‘not as bad off as people thought we would be’ as a result of the disclosures (Gellman 2020, p. 335).
It is claimed that foreign intelligence services hostile to U.S. interests benefitted from the disclosures—to the extent that such entities had access to the material made public, this is certainly true. Epstein insinuates (2017, p.110) and Snowden denies (2019, p.297) that information from the files which was not made public has been supplied to the Russian intelligence community—in exchange for Russian protection of Snowden from U.S. jurisdiction. There is no independent means of substantiating either this claim or the denial. The 2016 Congressional Review found that Snowden ‘did share intelligence’ with Russian authorities, based on an unverified claim made by the deputy chairman of the Russian parliament’s defence and security committee (p.20).
In the U.K., the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 likewise rendered lawful, intelligence community common mass surveillance practice that previously was unlawful.
The Editorial Board of The New York Times, 1st January 2014, made the same point, arguing that Snowden deserved to be treated with clemency as the wider benefits arising from his actions outweighed specific adverse consequences. ‘He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service.’ Subsequently, in a judgement published 2nd September 2020, a Court held that U.S. agencies had acted unlawfully (in the manner alleged in the Snowden disclosures). The matter before the Court required no determination on whether such collection was also unconstitutional. The Court acknowledged it might be, but made no ruling: United States v Moalin No. 13–50,572 (9th Cir. 2020), retrieved from https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2020/09/02/13-50572.pdf, 2nd September 2020.
The fifth finding of the 2016 Congressional Review was that three years after the disclosures, the U.S. intelligence community still had ‘not done enough to minimize the risk of another massive unauthorized disclosure’, (p. iii).
U.S. authorities promptly filed a civil lawsuit to seize all royalties from the book asserting the book’s publication to be in violation of a non-disclosure agreement signed by Snowden as part of his employment conditions: Case 1:19-cv-01197, filed 17th September 2019 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, accessible online at https://www.justice.gov/usao-edva/press-release/file/1203231/download (accessed 10 April 2020).
Attributed to Edward Snowden on https://edwardsnowden.com, accessed 20th October 2020.
Global internet user statistics retrieved from https://internetworldstats.com/stats.htm, 26th May 2020.
Virtues are cultivated rather than innate. Vallor takes into account Aristotelian, Confucian, and Buddhist constructions of virtue in proposing a pluralistic response to the cultural challenges posed by emerging technologies.
Technomoral wisdom is a different category of virtue from the others in Vallor’s framework. Wisdom is a complete virtue rather than a specific excellence or disposition: ‘a general condition of well-cultivated and integrated moral expertise that expresses successfully—and in an intelligent, informed, and authentic way—each of the other virtues of character that we, individually and collectively, need in order to live well with emerging technologies’ (Vallor, 2016, p.154; original emphasis).
In March 2013, three months before the Snowden disclosures, then Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, under oath before a Congressional Committee, when asked if the U.S. government was collecting ‘any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans’, replied ‘No, sir. … Not wittingly.’ Clapper subsequently explained that he had not understood the question, later changing his explanation to say that he had responded in the ‘least untruthful’ manner he could think of (Osburn 2019).
That someone thus harmed is not aware of being harmed, does not negate the harm. Being unjustifiably surveilled (subject to privacy intrusion) and not being made aware of being surveilled (subject to misuse of government coercive power) are separate harms.
Gellman notes that neither Snowden nor the U.S. government have any appetite—or, indeed, need—for final resolution (2020, 353).
A boarding pass evidencing intention to travel on to Ecuador is illustrated in Gellman (2020, 307).
Snowden’s partner, Lindsay Mills, emigrated to Russia to live with Snowden. There they married (Snowden 2019, 336). Having to leave her home to be in exile with her chosen partner can be argued to be a sacrifice on Mills’s part; as a component of the public blackening of Snowden’s character, she also has been subject to ad hominin insinuations (Epstein 2017, 41).
As the law currently stands, Snowden would not be allowed to mount a defence to some of the charges he faces (2019, 293). To address this due process deficiency, an amendment to the U.S. Espionage Act has been proposed to create a public interest defence (Gosztola 2020).
The literature is too extensive to review adequately within the scope of this paper.
Snowden discusses rights on pages 206–207 (2019).
To what extent commercial entities sub-contracted to undertake work for government agencies do or should prioritise public service interests over pursuit of profit is a debate outside the scope of this paper.
American presidents might have relied on such a system for six decades, but Snowden provided evidence that the system had come to operate in the interests of agencies and the regime, rather than in the interests of the public, which can also be argued to be a harmful outcome.
Though critical of Snowden’s character and conduct, Epstein nevertheless identified three beneficial consequences from the disclosures: public awareness of the surveillance leviathan; awareness of the security dangers inherent in the outsourcing of NSA functions; and awareness of the perils to privacy arising from data-collection technologies (2017, 299–300).
Detailed consideration of these moral nuances warrants a separate paper.
Adams, A., Murata, K., & Palma, A. (2017). Following Snowden: an international survey. Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, 15(3), 336–343.
Aiken, M., McMahon, C., Haughton, C., O’Neill, L., & O’Carroll, E. (2015). A consideration of the social impact of cybercrime: examples from hacking, privacy, and child abuse material online. Contemporary Social Science, 11(4), 373–391.
Bartels, L. (2020). Ethnic antagonism erodes Republicans’ commitment to democracy. PNAS Latest Articles. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2007747117
Beever, J., McDaniel, R. & Stanlick, N. (2020). Understanding Digital Ethics. Routledge.
Bellaby, R. (2018). Going dark: anonymising technology in cyberspace. Ethics and Information Technology, 20, 189–204.
Birrer, F. (2005). Data mining to combat terrorism and the roots of privacy concerns. Ethics and Information Technology, 7, 211–220.
Bok, S. (1989). Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation. Vintage Books.
Broeders, D. (2016). The secret in the information society. Philosophy and Technology, 29, 293–305.
Bronitt, S., & Gani, M. (2003). Shifting boundaries of cybercrime: from computer hacking to cyber-terrorism. Criminal Law Journal, 27, 303–321.
Buttar, S. (2014). Beyond CIA and NSA spying: corruption. The Huffington Post, 19 March 2014. Retrieved May 4, 2020, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/beyond-cia-and-nsa-spying-corruption_b_4981558..
Cassidy, J. (2013). Why Snowden is a hero. The New Yorker, 10 June 2013. Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/why-edward-snowden-is-a-hero.
Dorling, P., (2013). Australia gets ‘deluge’ of US secret data, prompting a new data facility. Sydney Morning Herald, 13 June 2013. Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://www.smh.com.au/technology/australia-gets-deluge-of-us-secret-data-prompting-a-new-data-facility-20130612-2o4kf.html.
Editorial Board. (2014). Edward Snowden, whistleblower. The New York Times, 1 January 2014. Retrieved May 4, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/02/opinion/edward-snowden-whistle-blower.html?searchResultPosition=10.
Epstein, E. (2017). How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft. Alfred A: Knopf.
Ess, C. (2006). Ethical pluralism and global information ethics. Ethics and Information Technology, 8(4), 215–226.
Fletz, F. (2016). Snowden is a traitor and a fraud, period. National Review, 16 September 2016. Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://www.nationalreview.com/2016/09/edward-snowden-report-house-intelligence-committee-not-pardon/.
Fuchs, C., & Trottier, D. (2017). Internet surveillance after Snowden: a critical empirical study of computer experts’ attitudes on commercial and state surveillance of the internet and social media. Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, 15(4), 412–444.
Galic, M., Timan, T., & Koops, B.-J. (2017). Bentham, Deleuze and beyond: an overview of surveillance theories from the panopticon to participation. Philosophy and Technology, 30, 9–37.
Gellman, B. (2020). Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the Surveillance State. Bodley Head.
Giraldi, P. (2013). Edward Snowden is no traitor. The American Conservative, 16 July 2013. Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/edward-snowden-is-no-traitor.
Gosztola, K. (2020). Proposed reform to U.S. Espionage Act would create public interest defense. Consortium News. 12 October 2020. Retrieved November 1, 2020, from https://consortiumnews.com/2020/10/12/proposed-reform-to-us-espionage-act-would-create-public-interest-defense/
Greenberg, A. (2013). NSA’s Verizon spying order specifically targeted American’s not foreigners. Forbes, 5 June 2013. Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2013/06/05/nsas-verizon-spying-order-specifically-targeted-americans-not-foreigners/#5915912238fe.
Greenwald, G. (2014). No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State. Hamish Hamilton.
Holt, T., Bossler, A., Siegfried-Spellar, K. (2018). Cybercrime and Digital Forensics. Routledge.
Hopkins, N. (2013). UK gathering secret intelligence via covert NSA operation. The Guardian, 22 December 2013. Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/jun/07/uk-gathering-secret-intelligence-nsa-prism.
Johnson, C. (2018). A ‘massive and unprecedented intrusion’: a comparative analysis of American journalistic discourse surrounding three government surveillance scandals. Digital Journalism, 5(3), 318–333.
Keck, Z. (2013). Yes, Edward Snowden is a traitor. The Diplomat, 21 December 2013. Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://thediplomat.com/2013/12/yes-edward-snowden-is-a-traitor/
Lehmann, N. (2017). Review of How America Lost Its Secrets by Edward Jay Epstein. The New York Times, posted 9 January 2017. Retrieved April 10, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/09/books/review/is-edward-snowden-a-spy-a-new-book-calls-him-one.html.
Lucas, G. (2014). NSA management directive #424: secrecy and privacy in the aftermath of Edward Snowden. Ethics and International Affairs, 28(1), 29–38.
Lustgarten, S. (2015). Emerging ethical threats to client privacy in cloud communication and data storage. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 46(3), 154–160.
Lyon, D. (2003). Surveillance After September 11. Polity Press.
Lyon, D. (2015). Surveillance After Snowden. Polity Press.
MacAskill, E. (2014). Edward Snowden’s NDSA leaks ‘an important service’ says Al Gore. The Guardian, 10th June 2014. Retrieved April 6, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/10/edward-snowden-nsa-leaks-important-service-al-gore.
Marx, G. (2016). Windows into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in an Age of High Technology. University of Chicago Press.
Morris, E. (2017). Review of How America Lost Its Secrets by Edward Jay Epstein. BookPage. Posted January 2020. Retrieved April 10, 2020, from https://bookpage.com/reviews/20784-edward-jay-epstein-retracing-snowdens-steps-nonfiction.
Munro, I. (2018). An interview with Snowden’s lawyer: Robert Tibbo on whistleblowing, mass surveillance and human rights activism. Organization Studies, 25(1), 106–112.
Nissenbaum, H. (2010). Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy and the Integrity of Social Life. Stanford University Press.
O’Connor, S., Hanson, F., Currey, E., & Beattie, T. (2020). Cyber-enabled foreign interference in elections and referendums. Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Osburn, M. (2019). Four different lies James Clapper told about lying to Congress. The Federalist, 6 March 2019. Retrieved May 4, 2020, from https://thefederalist.com/2019/03/06/four-different-lies-james-clapper-told-about-lying-to-congress/.
Penney, J. (2017). Internet surveillance, regulation, and chilling effects online: a comparative case study. Internet Policy Review, 6(2). https://doi.org/10.14763/2017.2.692
Pfister, R., Poitras, L., Rosenbach, M., Schindler, J., & Stark, H. (2013). German intelligence worked closely with NSA on data surveillance. Die Speigel. Retrieved May 26, 2020, from https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/german-intelligence-worked-closely-with-nsa-on-data-surveillance-a-912355.html.
Polantz, K, (2020). Edward Snowden agrees to give up more than $5 million from book and speeches. CNN. Retrieved October 20, 2020, from https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/21/politics/edward-snowden-money-books/index.html.
Rachels, J. (1975). Why privacy is important. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 4(4), 323–333.
Risen, T. (2014). Pentagon report says Snowden’s NSA leaks risk lives. US News & World Report, 9th January 2014. Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/01/09/pentagon-report-says-snowdens-nsa-leaks-risk-lives.
Scheuerman, W. (2014). Whistleblowing as civil disobedience: the case of Edward Snowden. Philosophy and Social Criticism, 7, 609–628.
Schneier, B. (2018). Click Here to Kill Everybody. Norton.
Shapiro, R. (2017). Donald Trump about Edward Snowden: ‘there is still a thing called execution’. Huffington Post. 7 December 2017. Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/donald-trump-edward-snowden-execution_n_3489944?ri18n=true.
Snowden, E. (2019). Permanent Record. Macmillan.
Strohm, C., & Wilber, D. (2014). Pentagon says Snowden took most U.S. secrets ever: Rogers. Bloomberg, 10 January 2014. Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-01-09/pentagon-finds-snowden-took-1-7-million-files-rogers-says.
Tonkin, C. (2020). Just 17 unique cases found by COVIDSafe app. Information Age. 27 October 2020. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://ia.acs.org.au/article/2020/just-17-unique-cases-found-by-covidsafe-app.html .
U.S. House of Representatives, (2016). Review of the Unauthorized Disclosures of Former National Security Agency Contractor Edward Snowden. (15 September 2016). Washington DC: U.S Congress. Retrieved May 28, 2020, from https://fas.org/irp/congress/2016_rpt/hpsci-snowden.pdf..
Vallor, S. (2015). Moral deskilling and upskilling in a new machine age: reflections on the ambiguous future of character. Philosophy and Technology, 28, 107–124.
Vallor, S. (2016). Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting. Oxford University Press.
Walters, J. (2020). Speculation grows over pardon for Edward Snowden after Trump remarks. The Guardian. 14 August 2020. Retrieved October 22, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/aug/14/edward-snowden-trump-presidential-pardon-speculation .
Williams, R. (2013). Americans pay GCHQ 100M GBP to spy for them, leaked NSA papers from Edward Snowden claim. The Independent, 2 August 2013. Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/americans-pay-gchq-100m-to-spy-for-them-leaked-nsa-papers-from-edward-snowden-claim-8743775.html.
Wilson, S. (2020). I’m a privacy expert and I have downloaded the COVIDSafe app. Sydney Morning Herald, 4 May 2020. Retrieved May 4, 2020, from https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/i-m-a-privacy-expert-and-i-ve-downloaded-the-covidsafe-app-20200503-p54pc6.html.
I am grateful to the anonymous peer reviewer(s) from whose helpful insights this paper has benefitted; and to Bryn Harfield who produced Fig. 1, his digital illustration skills being superior to my own.
Conflicts of interest:
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Harfield, C. Was Snowden virtuous?. Ethics Inf Technol (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-021-09580-4
- Edward Snowden
- Emerging technology
- Mass surveillance
- Technomoral ethics
- Virtue ethics