Was Snowden virtuous?


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.

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Fig. 1

Data and material availability

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  1. 1.

    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).

  2. 2.

    Epstein (2017) and Snowden (2019) present different accounts of the circumstances surrounding Snowden’s journey from Kong Kong to Moscow and the cancellation of his U.S. passport that cannot be reconciled, and which—for the purpose of this paper—do not need to be.

  3. 3.

    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).

  4. 4.

    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).

  5. 5.

    In the U.K., the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 likewise rendered lawful, intelligence community common mass surveillance practice that previously was unlawful.

  6. 6.

    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.

  7. 7.

    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).

  8. 8.

    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).

  9. 9.

    Attributed to Edward Snowden on https://edwardsnowden.com, accessed 20th October 2020.

  10. 10.

    Global internet user statistics retrieved from https://internetworldstats.com/stats.htm, 26th May 2020.

  11. 11.

    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.

  12. 12.

    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).

  13. 13.

    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).

  14. 14.

    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.

  15. 15.

    Gellman notes that neither Snowden nor the U.S. government have any appetite—or, indeed, need—for final resolution (2020, 353).

  16. 16.

    A boarding pass evidencing intention to travel on to Ecuador is illustrated in Gellman (2020, 307).

  17. 17.

    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).

  18. 18.

    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).

  19. 19.

    The literature is too extensive to review adequately within the scope of this paper.

  20. 20.

    Snowden discusses rights on pages 206–207 (2019).

  21. 21.

    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.

  22. 22.

    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.

  23. 23.

    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).

  24. 24.

    Detailed consideration of these moral nuances warrants a separate paper.


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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.


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Harfield, C. Was Snowden virtuous?. Ethics Inf Technol (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-021-09580-4

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  • Edward Snowden
  • Emerging technology
  • Mass surveillance
  • Technomoral ethics
  • Virtue ethics
  • Whistle-blower