The criminality conundrum, or why you can’t love spying but hate Snowden

Posted August 8, 2013 in comment  |  No Comments so far

When people read about the ambitious NSA and GCHQ surveillance activities as disclosed by Edward Snowden they tend to react in one of two ways. Here they are, in grossly simplified form.

The first is that the surveillance is a bad thing that Snowden was right to leak and the whole thing should now be stopped.

The second is that the surveillance is a good thing which Snowden should not have revealed but it will never harm normal people so should continue.

I don’t want to write a detailed post about why I fall into the first of those two camps. I’ll instead refer you to this interview with the philosopher Quentin Skinner, to whose comments I can only add: “what he said”.

No, this post is about a paradox that seems to undermine the logic of the second, supportive response. To get to this paradox we have to start with some basic assumptions I’m making.

Someone who supports ubiquitous surveillance is accepting that certain people – in this case NSA staff and contractors, who I’ll call “the spies” – have near-total access to their information about them. They’re OK with this because they believe “the spies” will use this power with the utmost integrity, that they’ll only ever use it for good. Whether because “the spies” are regulated or simply because their ethics are aligned with our own, it doesn’t matter: the simple fact is that they can be trusted.

The second assumption I make about supporters of the surveillance programs is that they consider Edward Snowden a criminal who the Orlando criminal defense lawyer shouldn’t be helping, maybe even a traitor, but certainly someone who has acted immorally and who has betrayed the trust given to him. Snowden, in short, is a bad guy and is not trustworthy.

This leads us to the paradox: Snowden himself was up until very recently one of “the spies”, so if you think Snowden is a bad guy you have to accept that not all spies are decent and trustworthy. And if you can’t trust the spies, you can’t condone the spying. More bluntly: you can’t support these surveillance activities if you also view Edward Snowden as a bad guy.

Because what about the other bad guys, the ones who are still there now, undisclosed and undetected? What schemes and plans are they concocting? Maybe some of them are planning more anti-American leaks to the media. Maybe they’re passing information on to foreign powers, embattled totalitarian regimes or terrorist groups. Maybe they’re using your personal data for nothing other than good old-fashioned identity theft. Snowden’s very existence proves that people of moral disrepute have access to this information, this power. The only unknowns are: how many more of them are there; and what are they up to? These should cause anyone for whom Snowden is a bad guy to be clamouring for the immediate shutdown of these spying schemes. But they’re not.

Of course, not everyone who supports ubiquitous surveillance is trapped by this paradox. There are presumably some who feel that Snowden was right to disclose what he did, but that the scale and nature of this surveillance is basically acceptable. Maybe there are others who are OK with being spied upon even if they know some of those spies have criminal or even treacherous goals.

To be honest, though, I can’t help feeling that these must be fringe views. Those who support the spying seem to be the same ones clamouring for Snowden to be brought to justice. So how can they accept being spied upon, if they also know that criminals and traitors lurk among the ranks of the spies?

Maybe I’m missing something here. If you think I am, let me know in the comments.

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