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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

What We Owe Our Whistleblowers

If we want the next Edward Snowden or Reality Winner to speak up, we have to show that we’re listening.

You might think the greatest internal struggle faced by a potential whistleblower, while deliberating whether to come forward or not, is fear of punishment by their soon-to-be aggrieved government or organization. It might seem like any hesitation on their part is tied up in a calculation weighing the personal cost of their actions against the benefits to society. But perhaps the more weighty consideration in the whistleblower’s mind is one of public reception. In other words: “Will anyone care once I’ve blown this whistle?” If the public isn’t moved to action at the unveiling of malpractice or blatant criminality, then what incentive is there to take the considerable risk of stepping into the often fraught spotlight? Well, there isn’t one. If our society wants to benefit from whistleblowers coming forward in the future, it is up to us to show them we’re listening today. Unfortunately, our recent track record isn’t great.

In June of 2013, Edward Snowden, a former intelligence contractor operating out of a hotel room in Hong Kong, revealed documents to American journalists on the NSA’s mass surveillance programs. The documents showed the NSA’s programs were operating without any public oversight—and outside the limits of the U.S. Constitution. These revelations, once distributed by prominent media outlets such as the Guardian, generated unprecedented attention and outrage around the world on the subjects of privacy intrusion and digital security. After Snowden, a U.S. citizen at the time, voluntarily revealed himself as the source of the leaks to lend further credibility to their cause, the U.S. Justice Department wasted no time in cracking down. Snowden was charged with theft, “unauthorized communication of national defense information,” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person”—the latter two charges violations of the 1917 Espionage Act, which carried the possibility of government execution. 

If Snowden had returned to the United States voluntarily or been captured abroad and extradited, he likely would have been charged and jailed with no recourse or even a fair trial. As Daniel Ellsberg (whose release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 made him the most famous whistleblower of the 20th century) noted in the Guardian, “The current state of whistleblowing prosecutions under the Espionage Act makes a truly fair trial wholly unavailable to an American who has exposed classified wrongdoing.” As such, Snowden—with the help of lawyers and journalists—fled his hotel room in Hong Kong and took up refuge with men and women seeking political asylum in the city who, according to the New York Times, “[lived] in cramped, substandard apartment blocks in some of the city’s poorest districts.” One of Snowden’s Hong Kong lawyers, Robert Tibbo, turned to these clients for help in part because he expected them to understand Snowden’s plight. “These were people who went through the same process when they were fleeing other countries,” Tibbo said. “They had to rely on other people for refuge, safety, comfort and support.” The asylum seekers kept Snowden safe, and after fleeing Hong Kong, he was granted asylum in Russia.

Fast forward seven years: in September 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found the program Snowden exposed was indeed unlawful. The court also found that the U.S. intelligence leaders who publicly defended the program had been lying to the public. The court’s ruling went on to add, “The warrantless telephone dragnet that secretly collected millions of Americans’ telephone records violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and may well have been unconstitutional.” Various mainstream media outlets, such as the Washington Post and Politico, broke news of the ruling and sheepishly acknowledged the “seven year delay.” Snowden said that the ruling was a vindication of his decision to go public with evidence and tweeted: “I never imagined that I would live to see our courts condemn the NSA’s activities as unlawful and in the same ruling credit me for exposing them.”  

It seemed as though after seven long years, there would be a just and heartwarming conclusion to the tale of Edward Snowden—who, in spite of the massive personal risks involved, displayed outsized courage in standing up to the most powerful government in the world for what he believed to be right and in the public’s best interest.  In the end, it appeared he was finally vindicated for his actions.

Not quite. 

To this day, Snowden remains exiled in Russia. The U.S. government has refused to drop any charges or grant any clemency, despite some rumors of a pardon during the final days of the Trump administration. Last August, the bipartisan team of former congressman Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), even co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post titled: “No, Edward Snowden does not deserve a pardon, President Trump.” As they argued, the prospect of “[pardoning] the man who committed the largest and most damaging leak of classified information in U.S. history is one of the strangest things we’ve heard in a very strange year. Snowden does not under any circumstances—now or in the future—deserve a pardon.”

Snowden, even before being vindicated by the court ruling, has maintained his position that he would like to return to the United States—but only if he is given a fair trial. As he told CNN:     

Of course I would like to return to the United States, but if I’m going to spend the rest of my life in prison, then one bottom line demand that we all have to agree to is at least I get a fair trial… The government wants to have a different kind of trial… They want to be able to close the courtroom. They want the public not to be able to know what’s going on.

Was Blowing the Whistle Worth It?

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now say with a high degree of confidence that Snowden’s whistleblowing has had a real impact on curtailing some of the most egregious illegal government surveillance practices. In a series titled, “The Snowden Legacy: What’s changed, really?,” ArsTechnica laid out some of the most notable changes, such as an end to the NSA and FBI’s practice of harvesting call records from telecoms giants like Verizon.

The series went on to quote Mark Rumold, senior staff attorney at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, who called Snowden’s disclosures “a wakeup call for the government that secrecy is not the highest order of value when it comes to intelligence.” Rumold also hinted that Snowden’s actions might have helped embolden would-be whistleblowers to step forward in the future. When the erstwhile intelligence contractor spoke out, he sent a message to the government that “when they build these massive illegal programs under a veil of secrecy, then there’s a resulting backlash that can cause them to lose authority,” as Rumold put it.  

The Snowden leaks also changed how people felt about privacy issues—some people, at least. The Pew Research Center put out a report in 2018 titled, “How Americans have viewed government surveillance and privacy since Snowden leaks,” in which the results of their survey show that 87 percent of Americans said they had heard at least something about government surveillance programs. Among those who had heard something, 25 percent said they had changed the patterns of their technology use “a great deal” or “somewhat” since the Snowden revelations. Snowden himself has said this was the point: “The most important change was public awareness. The government and corporate sector preyed on our ignorance. But now we know. People are aware now. People are still powerless to stop it, but we are trying. The revelations made the fight more even.”

Snowden’s actions have inspired other whistleblowers to come forward as well, such as former Air Force linguist and intelligence contractor Reality Winner. Winner was a few months into a job as a translator for the NSA when she was accused of printing a report from her work computer that detailed hacking attacks by a Russian intelligence service against local election officials and voter registration databases. She smuggled the report out of the offices and mailed them to the online news outlet, the Intercept. But then things took a turn for the worse. Before long, Winner was arrested and sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison. In court filings, prosecutors pointed out Winner had expressed support for Edward J. Snowden. 

If you’re thinking this is all coalescing into a battle between two opposing sides—the whistleblower-loathing U.S. government vs. everyone else—you’d be mistaken. The corporate media has effectively sided with the government, by either downplaying the issue or in some cases going as far as smearing and discrediting whistleblowers themselves. Shortly after Snowden was granted asylum in Russia, USA Today published an op-ed titled “Snowden plays pawn for Putin.” And even after the recent court ruling, which should have exonerated Snowden of any wrongdoing, the Hill published a piece titled: “Pardon of Edward Snowden would embolden the enemies of America.” U.S. officials said whistleblowers posed a threat to national security, and their friends in corporate media eagerly went to work manufacturing consent. 

There is no shortage of new warning signs that the worst overreaches in data collection and surveillance are yet to come. Whistleblowers are going to be needed more than ever. We need to show we’re listening and willing to act upon new revelations that will, as we have seen with Snowden and others, come at a high cost for them. 

The Surveillance State to Come 

If I had to pick just one disconcerting aspect of the Snowden affair to focus on after seven years, it is the lack of mass outrage once the dust settled. One might think the U.S. of all countries—comprised of a citizenry that claims to be sensitive about encroachments on civil liberties—would be endlessly incensed by the knowledge that they’re being watched, listened to, and even recorded without consent or warrant. But one reason for the apparent apathy is that many Americans have come to accept surveillance and intrusion as reasonable tradeoffs for many modern conveniences.

As Alexis Kleinman noted in the Huffington Post: Americans may be disapproving, but they’re not all that concerned. Only 17 percent reported that they were “very concerned” about government surveillance, while 35 percent were somewhat concerned, 33 percent were not very concerned and 13 percent were not at all concerned. Just because people think it’s wrong doesn’t mean they’re sitting awake at night worrying about it, clearly.

There is also a growing sense of futility, especially among those least empowered to object. It should come as no surprise that there are disproportionate intrusions of government surveillance into poor, Black, and brown communities. As Barton Gellman and Sam Adler-Bell of The Century Foundation reported, “Federal, state, and local governments shield their high-technology operations with stealth, obfuscation, and sometimes outright lies when obliged to answer questions.” These agencies have long been skilled in the arts of deception—whether for “lofty” purposes or just self-preservation—and they do not surrender their secrets willingly, especially to people they deem expendable. 

Snowden himself has warned: 

The great fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. [People] won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things and in the months ahead, the years ahead, it’s only going to get worse. [The NSA will] say that because of the crisis, the dangers that we face in the world, some new and unpredicted threat, we need more authority, we need more power, and there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it. And it will be turnkey tyranny.

When confronted with the unsettling reality of our (lack of) digital privacy, many will say things like “I’ve got nothing to hide” or “I’m not a terrorist, why should I be worried about my data being monitored?” American journalist Farhad Manjoo, in a Slate piece titled “We Need More Cameras, and We Need Them Now: The Case for Surveillance,” argued, “Yes, you don’t like to be watched. Neither do I. But of all the measures we might consider to improve security in an age of terrorism, installing surveillance cameras everywhere may be the best choice.” That’s probably better than an expanded version of stop-and-frisk, and it might be a difficult position to argue against if personal data was strictly being used to thwart terrorist attacks or solve crimes. But obviously it’s not. Mass data collection, as Snowden has tried to repeatedly warn us, is not just the domain of counter-terrorism intelligence operations or technology giants looking to turn a profit (neither of which are benign aims in and of themselves). Instead, this kind of all-encompassing surveillance is increasingly becoming the crucial ingredient that fuels totalitarian control.

As you may have already noticed by way of engaging with technology platforms such as Google, Facebook, or Netflix, the more identifiable data they have on you, the more personalized and accurate “the experience.” The same can be said for your relationship with your government, except the data will not be used to recommend the next series they think you should binge. In September 2020, the Atlantic published a piece titled “The Panopticon Is Already Here,” which elaborated in terrifying detail the various ways in which China’s Xi Jinping is using “Big Data” and artificial intelligence to enhance his government’s totalitarian control—and how he’s exporting this technology to regimes around the globe. The piece noted that “China already has hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras in place” and that “Xi’s government hopes to soon achieve full video coverage of key public areas.” However, that’s not even the most sobering plan in the works. Before long, Chinese authorities may be able to use rapidly-improving A.I. technology to identify anyone who steps foot in a public space thanks to “an ocean of personal data, including their every text communication, and their body’s one-of-a-kind protein construction schema.” 

That’s not just pessimistic hyperbole. In 2017, BBC News pondered the question, “How long can a BBC reporter stay hidden from CCTV cameras in China?” The answer was seven minutes. Chinese authorities barely broke a sweat while locating and apprehending reporter John Sudworth using a powerful network of cameras and facial recognition technology. If your next thought is something along the lines of, “Well, that’s China, it can’t happen here in the West,” you should know we’re already well on our way.

Governments in the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have formed advanced spy partnerships, most notably the Five Eyes Alliance. Other countries have joined them with lesser privileges, making up the Nine and 14 Eyes Alliances. The average person only learned about these partnerships when Snowden leaked highly classified information from the NSA and it came to light that a huge range of people from across the political spectrum— like Charlie Chaplin, Strom Thurmond, Nelson Mandela, Jane Fonda, Ali Khamenei, John Lennon, and even Princess Diana—were targeted for surveillance. It makes you wonder: was Princess Diana suspected of plotting terror?

In the U.S., facial recognition technology is already widely used, and only a handful of cities, such as Portland, Boston, San Francisco, and Oakland, have moved to ban it. Other countries are mounting even less opposition. Campaigners against mass surveillance systems say it’s difficult to persuade people these technologies are genuinely harmful—especially in places where public security or terrorism are serious problems. One such campaigner, Leandro Ucciferri, a lawyer specializing in technology and human rights at the Association for Civil Rights in Argentina told BuzzFeed News, “I don’t think people are happy about tech or positive about tech for the sake of it, but they don’t know the extent to which that can go wrong… People don’t usually have the whole picture.”

But we don’t need to search far to see that when left unchecked, this type of surveillance is far from harmless. BuzzFeed’s reporting in China revealed that, “Facial recognition cameras, for instance, are now ubiquitous in the country after first appearing in the western region of Xinjiang, where more than a million [Uyghurs], Kazakhs, and other Muslim ethnic minorities are now in internment camps.” The ongoing Uyghur genocide is the first example of a government using 21st century surveillance technology to target people based on race and religion in order to send them to internment camps. However, it may not be the last.

Americans don’t need to go too far back in our own history to find examples of government surveillance targeting marginalized groups. The ACLU reminds us the United States has a long history of surveilling Black activists, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Ella Baker, and Marcus Garvey. In 2015, the FBI’s secret aerial surveillance technology was used to monitor Black Lives Matter protests in the days after Baltimore police killed Freddie Gray. In 2017, a leak exposed that the FBI had surveilled Black people nationwide, under the ominously vague category “Black identity extremist.”

More recently, in a 2020 research paper titled “Dirty Data, Bad Predictions,” lead author Rashida Richardson described an alarming scenario: “Law enforcement agencies are increasingly using predictive policing systems to forecast criminal activity and allocate police resources. Yet in numerous jurisdictions, these systems are built on data produced during documented periods of flawed, racially biased, and sometimes unlawful practices and policies (‘dirty policing’).” When we are studied and acted upon solely as data points, devoid of any nuance or context, we are no longer just being surveilled. We’re being manipulated, and this is technological determinism at its worst. 

As Human Rights Watch’s Yaqiu Wang told BuzzFeed

I worry tremendously over whether human beings will have freedom in the future anymore. We used to worry about the age of AI as robots annihilating humans like in science fiction. I think what’s happening instead is that humans are being turned into robots, with the sensory systems placed around cities that are enabling governments and corporations to monitor us continuously and shape our behavior.

The age of mass algorithmic surveillance, by governments and enterprises alike, is still in its infancy. While Snowden’s efforts did open a new and crucial dialogue about privacy, the tangible changes that followed have left much to be desired. Both the Obama and Trump administrations broke new ground in their aggressive crackdown on leaks and journalists. President Barack Obama, in fact, set a record for any president with his number of prosecutions against leakers using the Espionage Act. Given the insignificant blowback to date, there is no reason to think President Biden will not follow suit. 

All the while, the world has continued in its adoption of devices and technologies that, although indispensable for navigating daily life, continue to curtail personal privacy and open the door for increased government surveillance and corporate manipulation. As the pandemic has forced us into our homes, the technology has certainly followed. People have shifted their entire lives online—exposing more and more personal data to a barely regulated internet ecosystem. People have turned to Zoom as a replacement for face-to-face meetings, only to find that the company hasn’t put privacy at the top of its priorities. Schools and classrooms have rushed online and in doing so have handed over their data to Google. Sara Morrison in Recode observed

Not only did people integrate more data collection and information exposure into their daily lives, but they were also told that this tracking could have public health benefits. Location data companies promoted their services as useful tools to track the virus’s spread or measure the effectiveness of social distancing as they tracked millions of people who were likely unaware that they were being tracked at all, let alone how. But it’s hard to say that any one of them did much good, given the pandemic’s mostly unchecked spread across the country.

The personal and societal upside made possible by technology has never been greater, but if the world at large is going to have any chance of thwarting an Orwellian future of mass surveillance, it won’t be because citizens voluntarily throw out their devices, limit their use of technologies, or refuse to go anywhere that might have a camera installed. It also won’t be because governments and corporate actors suddenly found their benevolent sides and acted to protect privacy rights. As it stands right now, the benefits of mass surveillance—whether it be control for governments or outsized profit for corporations—massively outweigh the risks involved. Public apathy as the government slanders, smears, and imprisons whistleblowers only tips the balance further in the wrong direction. Only mass action can check state and corporate power run amok. For this, we need whistleblowers to provide the spark.

We Need to Show Whistleblowers We’re Listening 

Edward Snowden was not pardoned by President Obama or President Trump, and unless a significant shift takes place, it appears unlikely to happen under President Biden. No president has pardoned Snowden because there has been no political consequence for not pardoning Snowden. In fact, the public’s laxity on the issue has emboldened these administrations to crack down even further on whistleblowers. This trend has dangerous implications for the potential whistleblower of tomorrow. They might reasonably conclude, “Why take this enormous personal risk if no one is going to listen or demand action?”

In a world where our data is increasingly being stored, analyzed, and deployed out of public sight—often for nefarious reasons of control or profit—we need the witnesses of wrongdoing to feel incentivized to come forward. It is unlikely they will do so if the treatment of Snowden, and other whistleblowers of late, is held up as the example of what is to come.

To show we’re listening, we must use every tool at our disposal to transform their acts of bravery into popular movements. We can do this through collective educating, organizing, and protesting—bringing together a large and politically diverse coalition of citizens all interested in preserving their constitutional and human rights to privacy. Raising the volume on this issue would force the media to start paying attention, and make the political consequences of maintaining the unjust status quo untenable. The trajectory of our world, and the future of many of our freedoms that we currently take for granted, might just come to depend on whether future Edward Snowdens believe their act will ignite a movement capable of enacting real change, or simply fall on deaf and distracted ears. 

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