Edward Snowden, former NSA infrastructure analyst turned whistleblower, spoke on May 15 to Cubberley Auditorium to discuss the philosophical tensions of whistleblowing and government surveillance. The 2015 Symbolic Systems Distinguished Speaker, Snowden spoke via video conference from Moscow.
Professors of philosophy John Perry and Kenneth Taylor moderated the discussion, part of which also served as a recording of “Philosophy Talk,” a nationally-syndicated radio program which grapples with problems in philosophy and how philosophy relates to our everyday lives.
After brief introductions by Perry and Taylor, Snowden addressed the dilemmas in whistleblowing and his thoughts on his situation. Taylor asked whether he sees himself as a hero or a traitor, considering the various depictions presented by the government and media.
“This is a really common question that’s asked a lot,” he said. “I think it’s got one of the least interesting answers. I don’t think about myself or how I will be perceived. It’s not about me. It’s about us. I’m not a hero. I’m not a traitor. I’m an ordinary American like anyone else in the room. I’m just trying to do the best that I can.”
Snowden, who currently resides in Russia under asylum, proceeded to discuss the cost-benefit analysis that whistleblowers must consider before leaking information.
“I certainly paid for it,” he said. “I lived in Hawaii, had a wonderful girlfriend, a home, a happy family, a successful career. To walk away from that it does require a real commitment to something…I think the driving principle is that you have to have a greater commitment to justice than a fear of the law.”
Perry and Taylor asked whether Snowden was reluctant to “break the law.” Discussing his personal motivations for leaking the NSA documents, Snowden said he was motivated more by “self-interest” than altruism, as he felt that he would improve societal wellbeing by revealing and ultimately dismantling the NSA’s metadata collection programs. He added that he feels there are moral obligations to act when the law no longer reflects the morality of the society it governs.
“When legality and morality begin to separate, we all have a moral obligation to do something about that,” he said. “When I saw that the work I was doing and all my colleagues were doing [was] being subversive not only to our intentions but contrary to the public’s intent, I felt an obligation to act.”