Against Moral Absolutism: Surveillance and Disclosure After Snowden

| June 2015
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Now that the uproar provoked by the disclosure of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs has lessened, and the main protagonists, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, have had a chance to make the case for their actions, we are in a position to evaluate whether their disclosure and publication of communications intelligence was justified. To this end, this essay starts by clarifying the history, rationale, and efficacy of communications surveillance. Following this I weigh the arguments against surveillance, focusing in particular on the countervailing value of privacy. Next I explain why state secrecy makes it difficult for citizens and lawmakers to assess the balance that officials are striking between security and privacy. Finally, I turn to consider whether the confounding nature of state secrecy justifies Snowden’s and Greenwald’s actions. I conclude that their actions are unjustified because they treat privacy and transparency as trumps. Consequently, their actions embody a moral absolutism that disrespects the norms and procedures central to a constitutional democracy.

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Category: Essay, Issue 29.2

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