Whistleblowing Is the New Civil Disobedience: Why Edward Snowden Matters

Like many other civil liberties advocates, I’ve been annoyed by how the media has spilled more ink talking about Edward Snowden than the issues that he’s trying to raise. I’ve grumbled at the “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” reality show and the way in which TV news glosses over the complexities that investigative journalists have tried to publish as the story unfolded. But then a friend of mine – computer scientist Nadia Heninger – flipped my thinking upside down with a simple argument: Snowden is offering the public a template for how to whistleblow; leaking information is going to be the civil disobedience of our age.

In recent years, increasing numbers of concerned citizens have been coming forward as whistleblowers, pointing out questionable acts by the American government agencies and corporations. The current administration has responded to this practice by prosecuting more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined. Most of what leakers share is barely heard by the public. For example, most people don’t know who Mark Klein is even though he publicly shared information that showed that his former employer – AT&T – was working with the NSA to analyze Americans’ phone calls in violation of citizens’ privacy. The news coverage he got in 2006 was significant to advocates, but the public doesn’t know his name or even realize that Verizon wasn’t the first telecom to share extensively with the NSA.

The public is more likely to have heard of Bradley Manning, mostly because Julian Assange has managed to keep himself – and, thus, the issues at hand – in the news. Debates about WikiLeaks meant that the coverage of the diplomatic cable leaks were a story that journalists covered for more than a second. Julian Assange’s questionable morality and arrogance complicated that story, allowing anti-leakers to undermine the credibility and intentions of all who were involved. At the same time, his antics enabled an ongoing media circus which has meant that people are at least aware of the frame of leaking, even if they think poorly of Assange and, by proxy, Manning. Manning may have been silenced but his decisions continue to be discussed, for better and for worse.

Snowden has presented the public with a different case study. Although many anti-leakers have worked hard to portray him as a dropout / misfit / uneducated fool, that hasn’t stuck. At best, people have managed to tar him through his association with Wikileaks and his willingness to go to countries that are perceived as American foes (China, Russia, Venezuela, Ecuador, etc.). Not only does this narrative – as well as the American governmental response – suggest that Cold War attitudes are still ever-present, but it also puts American arrogance on display. Blocking the Bolivian president’s access to airspace and searching his plane didn’t help.

As this drama has played out, Snowden has become a walking diplomatic incident. Even though he has been disciplined and thoughtful in what he has shared, revealing little more than advocacy organizations have suspected or known for a long time and sharing vague documents that don’t fully make sense, every ounce of American political might has been operationalized to go after him as a serious threat, piquing curiosity about what else he knows and what he might do. Most likely, had he just revealed what he revealed and then disappeared, it would’ve been a news story for a week and then been quickly forgotten. But because the focus is on him, aspects of what he’s tried to argue keep dripping through the salacious coverage of his whereabouts.

More importantly though, as Nadia pointed out to me, he’s creating a template for how to share information. He’s clearly learned from previous whistleblowers and is using many of their tactics. But he’s also forged his own path which has had its own follies. Regardless of whether he succeeds or fails in getting asylum somewhere, he’s inspired others to think about how they can serve as a check to power. And this is terrifying for any government.

Ironically, the government’s efforts to deter future whistleblowers by being tough on Snowden is most likely to backfire. This kind of zero-tolerance approach assumes that those who are engaging in whistleblowing are operating under the same logic, priorities, and values as government actors. Sure, plenty of people don’t come forward because they’re too scared; that’s not new. But because of how the government responded to Snowden, those who are willing to take on the big fight now have a model for how to do it, how to iterate based on what they learned watching Snowden. The US government, far from deterring future whistleblowers, has just incentivized a new generation of them by acting like a megalomaniac.

And this is where I think that Nadia’s second point is of serious importance. People growing up with the internet understand that information is power. Those who’ve watched protests in recent years know that traditional physical civil disobedience doesn’t create the iconic narratives and images that it once did. And thus, not surprisingly, what it means to protest is changing. This is further complicated by an increased obsession with secrecy – secret courts, secret laws, secret practices – that make using the rule of law to serve as a check to power ineffective. Thus, questioning authority by leaking information that shows that power is being abused becomes a more valuable and notable form of civil disobedience. As with all forms of civil disobedience, there are significant consequences. But when secrecy is what’s being challenged, the biggest risk is not being beaten by a police officer for staging an event, but being disappeared or silenced by the institutions being challenged or embarrassed. And thus, as much as I hate to accept it, becoming a diplomatic incident is extraordinarily powerful not just for self-protection, but also as a way to make sure that the media doesn’t lose interest in the issues at play.

I want to live in a society that is willing to critically interrogate how power is operationalized and how institutions and the rule of law function as a check to power. To me, this is an essential aspect of democracy. Unchecked power is how dictatorships emerge. If the rule of law is undermined and secrecy becomes the status quo, it becomes necessary for new civil disobedience tactics to emerge. And, more than the content of the leaks, this is what I think that we’re watching unfold.

This post was originally posted on Medium.

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20 thoughts on “Whistleblowing Is the New Civil Disobedience: Why Edward Snowden Matters

  1. Margaret Weigel

    Hi, danah. You make interesting points here, thanks for putting it all together.

    What strikes me right now is how this new class of whistleblowers are all white males. Does this suggest that only white males are in positions to identify transgressions by the powers that be, or perhaps that the ability to call out injustices in the modern age is primarily (if not universally) limited to those born into positions of privilege w/r/t gender and ethnicity? That transgressions are primarily ones of information flow, access to which is often in the hands of white male engineers? Would love to know your thoughts…

    Stay cool.

  2. zephoria Post author

    Or is it that it is only relatively privileged white men who feel as though they afford to take the risks? Or is it easier for the public to dismiss and dismantle non-white, non-female whistleblowers?

    I recently encountered a woman who started down the process of whistleblowing only to be painted in a phenomenally sexist light on top of all of the other critiques that all whistleblowers are getting.

  3. BenVautier

    Good article – I have only one quibble.

    “Those who’ve watched protests in recent years know that traditional physical civil disobedience doesn’t create the iconic narratives and images that it once did.”

    I’m not sure we can really say that – at their height, the Occupy protests did indeed produce iconic narrative and images. Further, they were successful in reigniting outrage around the corruption, abuse and injustice of the financial industry and their cronies. But really, other than for a couple of months in 2011, we have not had the kind of mass protests that could prove or disprove your assertion. Oh, and there’s another example of traditional protest success: the Cooper Union students.

    I basically agree that whistle-blowing is on track to become a more central tool of dissent. But I’m not ready to say that the large-scale street actions of previous eras have been shown obsolete. Maybe they are and maybe they’re not. We don’t really know: for the simple reason that we’re not really doing them.

    Why we’re not is a subject worth considering.

  4. EthanZ

    danah, I think the connection between information as power and leaking/whistleblowing as civil disobedience is a helpful and valid one. One possible implication is that as more people like Snowden have access to more secret information (and we know that millions of people have access to classified information in the US), we will see more leaking.

    That leads to a challenge that you allude to in this piece, but which we don’t have a good solution for: attention. The “Where’s Snowden?” story is getting more attention than the revelations in the documents because it’s easier to to tell – it requires a good bit of research, sleuthing and explanatory power to go from the leaks he’s issued to meaningful stories on NSA surveillance. Right now, the surveillance story is competing with the Snowden diplomatic story for attention. What happens when multiple leaks are competing for attention? If we can expect more leaks, how do we build organizations that don’t just enable leaking and protect leakers but ensure that leaks turn into investigation, that investigation turns into attention and attention turns into change?

  5. John Erickson

    danah, thanks once again for a thought-provoking post!

    For several weeks I’ve debated with friends and colleagues over whether Mr. Snowden’s acts indeed represent civil disobedience and not some other form of protest. I’ve argued, for example, that they might not because he didn’t hang around to “face the consequences.” Your post provoked me to examine my views more deeply, and I sought out a more formal definition (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) to better frame my reflection. Based on how Mr. Snowden’s acts exhibit characteristics including conscientiousness, communication, publicity and non-violence, I do now see his whistleblowing as an example of civil disobedience.

    Conscientiousness: All the evidence suggests that Mr. Snowden is serious, sincere and has acted with moral conviction. To paraphrase the Stanford Encyclopedia, he appears to have been motivated not only out of self-respect and moral consistency but also by his perception of the interests of his society.

    Communication: Certainty Mr. Snowden has sought to disavow and condemn US policy as implemented by the NSA and has successfully drawn public attention to this issue; he has also clearly motivated others to question whether changes in laws and/or policies are required. The fact that he has legislators from both sides of the aisle arguing among themselves and with the Omama Administration is testimony to this. It is not clear to me what specific changes (if any) Mr. Snowden is actually seeking, and he certainly has not been actively engaged in instigating changes e.g. behind the scenes, but I don’t think this is required; his acts are clearly about effecting change by committing extreme acts of transparency.

    Publicity: This is an interesting part of the argument; while e.g. Rawls and Bedau argue that civil disobedience must occur in public, openly, and with fair notice to legal authorities, Smart states what seems obvious: to provide notice in some cases gives political opponents and legal authorities the opportunity to suppress the subject’s efforts to communicate. We can safely assume that Mr. Snowden did not notify his superiors at the NSA, but his acts might be still be regarded as “open” as they were closely followed by an acknowledgment and a statement of his reasons for acting. He has not fully disclosed what other secret documents he has in is possession, but it does not appear he has anonymously released any documents, either.

    Non-violence: To me this is an important feature of Mr. Snowden’s acts; as far as we know, Mr. Snowden has focusing on exposing the truth and not on violence or destruction. This is not to say that forms of protest that do result in damage property (e.g. web sites) are not civil disobedience; rather, the fact that he did not deface web sites or (to our knowledge) violate access control regimes does qualify his acts as non-violent.

    I have no idea whether Mr. Snowden read Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience or even the Wikipedia article, but his acts certainly exhibit the characteristics of civil disobedience and may serve as a “template” for whistleblowers moving forward. As a technologist, my fear is that his acts also provide a “use case” for security architects, raising the bar for whistleblowers who aim to help us “critically interrogate how power is operationalized…”

    Thanks again!

  6. Bon de Veire

    Yes agreed. You’ve made some fresh and interesting points in this debate. There is however one thing that seems to point to a lapse in critical thinking,
    you write ‘as much as I hate to accept it, becoming a diplomatic incident is extraordinarily powerful not just for self-protection, but also as a way to make sure that the media doesn’t lose interest in the issues at play.’
    So Snowden’s character splashed all over the media, has validity, it was a smart move, the only way to survive. Even though long before anyone had heard of Snowden, Assange is on record as saying ‘ Wikileaks needed a face, someone to step forward to ensure the Organisation would survive, so I became the lightening rod “. This is why Wikileaks has survived. It is an exraordinary personal sacrifice to make.
    It appears you are willing to apply this intelligent act of self protection and sacrifice to only one of these two extraordinary men. The other is branded as

    ” Julian Assange’s questionable morality and arrogance ……..//……… his antics enabled an ongoing media circus ( which has meant that people are at least aware of the frame of leaking, ) even if they think poorly of Assange ”

    Unfortunately it appears that you may have slipped into subjective moral judgement , most certainly fueled by Mainstream Media MIS-information. To continue your exemplary work may I suggest a little more research into the FACTS. http://waca.net.au/get-the-facts/

    The many thousands of us who have studied the facts closely for years do not ‘ think poorly of Assange ‘ He is held in the same high regard as Snowden. The mutual support between the two men is testament to both their characters.
    There are already many casualties in this power struggle over the free flow of information/speech and privacy and as you have quite rightly pointed out, the list of leakers will only grow.
    I hope that you will afford ALL of them due respect for their personal sacrifices.

  7. Ben

    While I still believe there is a lot of potential for civil disobedience, I agree with your argument. Increasingly the power structures at play are more interconnected and secretive; shining light on their inner workings will be necessary in order for them to change. Whistleblowers and leakers will obviously play a huge role in that, and already are… I wonder what your thoughts are on the Restore the Fourth protests, which spawned out of the leaks and into civil disobedience. Going off of what EthanZ said, I think civil disobedience may be a necessary tactic to leverage leaked information, just as journalism is another.

    EthanZ brings up a great question, one I often wonder about; what would happen if suddenly all of this information was available? It’s amazing the amount of data accessible around climate change yet the vocal deniers and skeptics remain strong, the problem is growing. Is more information needed? Better information? Maybe. But maybe big-money needs to get out of politics and we need more unbiased journalism to be able to actually confront unpopular information when we are given it. Maybe there is another option and I’d love to hear it.

    Assange often talks about levels of censorship/obfuscation in the form of a pyramid. At the top there is killing of journalists and dissenters, but this is also the smallest section. The bottom is confusion, or lack of education (I forget which) We don’t know how to organize all of the information we have in a meaningful way, we don’t know how to understand the information we do have, and we aren’t looking at it critically enough with large enough numbers to make a change possible. You said yourself many activists already assumed or knew what was revealed by Snowden, so maybe more information will not “fix” this. Are you saying that you believe that there would be a tipping point that would cause a large change? Thanks for writing this.

  8. zephoria Post author

    What does it even mean to “face the consequences” when engaged in civil disobedience? We’ve been trained in the United States that this means to face a court of law. But this presumes that the rule of law is functioning. If the rule of law is not functioning, is getting arrested “facing the consequences’? As I see it, being stuck in limbo, unable to communicate with family or friends and facing the ugliest side of a public media trial are pretty significant consequences to face.

  9. James F Traynor

    There was a man named Bernard Fall who, I think, would recognize this: a new weapon in asymmetric warfare. As I read him, the lesser combatant will come up with ingenious ways to fight a more powerful opponent. Snowden, I’m sure, has in the eyes of the MIC, become the new terrorist.

  10. tz

    It is also important to whistle-blow at the grass roots level. There are sites like PINAC (photography is not a crime) and copblock.org that suggest and support things like warning drivers of checkpoints (your papers please), and filming EVERY encounter with the police and asserting your rights and why you should.

    Consider how Trayvon v.s. Zimmerman would have changed if either or both were wearing something like google glass. Or other police encounters (many already on youtube).

    But this is not merely civil disobedience, there is a dissonance between the oath to the immediate boss ordering laws be broken, and the higher law (constitutional or moral law, see Nuremburg).

    Martin Luther King Jr. in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” quoted Aquinas that an unjust law is no law – has no force or authority.

    But here is the paradox. Too many like to have all kinds of unjust laws micromanaging everything. I need to be forced to buy health insurance from a state monopoly connected crony? I need to be forced to pay for contraception (is sex voluntary?). Gun control. DUI – guilty until proven innocent (see the DUI blog). The endangered species act is a “taking” no different than Kelo but without even compensation.

    If there is a higher law you can point to that would allow civil disobedience, it would also shred most of your pet regulations. If there is no higher law, there can be no “civil disobedience”. You are breaking the law and are simply a criminal.

    Aaron Swartz echoed again today as MIT wishes to suppress the FoIA request. Yet there were no shortage of “malicious prosecutions” the decade or even longer preceding his case. But they involved things and people you didn’t like.

    Do you want the rule of law or the rule of men?

  11. Anj

    To touch on something that I’ve been wondering, “what can we, the average citizen, do for those who are brave enough to be civilly disobedient?” I feel that there is nothing that I could have personally done for these brave people, but would like to (other than donating money somewhere). Is there an “underground railroad” of sorts to support them? I feel bad that these people are isolated from their families and friends, and put into limbo because of their integrity. Rather than just watch news and follow media articles, it would be great to have some way to reach out to them to let them know that we care and would like to help. Or maybe there should be some way for them to “reach out” to us, so that we know what they need or would like.

  12. zephoria Post author

    Anj – if you want to help, the best thing you can do is make sure that everyone you encounter understands what the issues are and engages in a public debate about what kind of society we want to live in, how we want to think about the balance of power, and what kind of protocols we’re OK with our government taking. In other words, if you want to help, focus on the issues because you can do more to help that way than to help the individuals who are trying to bring them to the forefront of the conversation.

  13. madest

    They use this metadata to know who is protesting Wall Street. They’ll never admit it, but it’s true.

  14. ben

    The argument that “leaking is a new form of civil disobedience” or bringing light to abuses of power is/as a new and or novel tool is disingenuous. The current brand of news reporting is far too obsessed with emotionally sensationial opinion based rhetoric instead of allowing a clear look at arguments so depriving and cheating the readers out of the tools to comprehend the consequences of this type of society.

  15. Grote Knark

    “Julian Assange’s questionable morality and arrogance” – A nasty, unfounded and incorrect remark by another intellectually-challenged American smile-head. You speak grandly, but just like so many other dumb people you read too much government news and think too little for yourself.
    I started reading your article with good hope but alas you my time with your article without direction, depth or point.

  16. Mark Kleiman

    I am so glad to have found your remarkable blog.

    A few thoughts on Margaret Weigel’s observation about gender differentiation in whistle blowing. I think the biggest reason we are seeing men come forward is their overrepresentation amongst systems engineers. The minute you get into other fields, many female whistle blowers come to mind:

    Jeselyn Radack, the DOJ attorney who blew the whistle on government misconduct and the torture of U.S. citizen John Walker Lindh;

    Colleen Rowley, the whistle blowing FBI agent who documented FBI management failures to act on early reports that could have intercepted one or more of the Sept. 11 hijackers;

    Sibel Edmonds, the FBI translator who blew the whistle on a post-9/11 FBI slow-down of document translation so that the Bureau could boost it’s budget; and

    Cheryl Eckard, a global quality assurance manager for GlaxoSmithKline who exposed unsafe drug manufacturing practices that jeopardized hundreds of thousands of American.

    I represent whistle blowers who have discovered companies that defraud the government and endanger public safety — and I know from my daily work that women are coming forward as bravely and frequently as men

  17. Mike

    Hi danah,

    You are right on the money. Whistleblowing is the new civil disobedience. We owe Snowden so much.

    Wish everyone cared as much as you.

    Also, if I can make an inappropriate comment–you’re hot!

    Hope I run into you again on this great big interwebs,


  18. S.R.S.

    Or is it that it is only relatively privileged white men who feel as though they afford to take the risks? Or is it easier for the public to dismiss and dismantle non-white, non-female whistleblowers?

    Sherron Watkins blew the whistle at Enron. Cynthia Cooper did the same at Worldcom, Coleen Rowley did it at the FBI. I’m not convinced that being female is enough to be categorically dismissed as a whistleblower by the powers that be.

  19. anon

    @Margaret Weigel and zephoria –
    There is a big difference in how the media treats female whistleblowers, and thus there is a big difference in whether legal support from the ACLU or the EFF will materialize. The media spins the story the way they think their audience wants to hear it. The standard attacks on the whistleblower’s character: disgruntled, vengeful, out-of-control threat to privacy/security fits stereotypes of women. At best, a woman of high social status and legal resources who might enjoy some protection from media savaging, might be able to portray herself as the dignified victim under attack from powerful (male) corporate interests. The role of the whistleblowing “hero” – courageous provider of *important* information, capable of driving *serious* discussions, belongs to the white male.

    Lawyers, advocacy organizations, and political representatives will only offer their help if they think they will get good press and further their own agendas. Without this support, women whistleblowers get sucked into a media death spiral. Women whistleblowers are the equivalent of box office poison.

    I am speaking from experience. Years ago I “blew the whistle” on something I found on Google. There was nothing illegal or hackerish involved in my ability to use a search engine. I attempted to report what I found to the relevant Federal agency, and when that didn’t work I attempted to report it to the press. No one was interested. When I blogged about it, essentially “leaking” what had been on public display for years, I had to fend off corporate PR and corporate lawyers on my own. No one went to bat for me to point out I hadn’t done anything illegal or that it was in the public’s interest to know about corporate carelessness in handling their information. One news station spliced an interview with me to try to make me sound like a hacker, and a major newspaper highlighted whether I used hacker words.

    The worst part is how there is nothing to protect the basic civil rights of the “accused” whistleblower. The State where I live initially fell for the idea I was some sort of “threat” and represented me as such in a public order to “stop” me from linking to stuff they didn’t want me to link to.

    Exposing my identity in public documentation allowed the media to use my name (my blog had been anonymous), and the order itself remains a searchable Internet document. Thus the State has turned a lie about me into a permanent record: a “brand” that will always affect my employability and public reputation. Neither my political representatives or advocacy organizations like the EFF and the ACLU will help me: there’s just nothing in it for them, and in the case of the political representatives it suits them just fine if someone is permanently punished for doing something they didn’t like (whistleblowing, noisy blogging while female) even if it means the State is perpetuating a falsehood in writing.

    I regard Snowden as a hero – not only for the discussion he started, but because his situation really highlighted the sleazy methods used to discredit and delegitimize whistleblowers. However, I have to confess to some sour grapes that he benefited from a support system that was denied to me and other female whistleblowers.

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