Is whistle-blower a friend or foe?

“I’m neither traitor nor hero. I’m an American.” – Edward Snowden

Snowden worked at a National Security Agency (NSA) Threat Operations Center in Hawaii, one of several such facilities that are tasked with detecting threats to government computer systems. He previously worked for the CIA.

The Guardian, the British paper that first broke stories on NSA surveillance programs, or Prism, reported that Snowden had taken four laptops filled with secrets with him when he fled from Hawaii to Hong Kong late last month. Last Sunday, the 29-year-old “whistleblower” leaked to the press that the NSA was secretly monitoring citizens’ and foreigners’ phone and Internet activities.

He made $122,000 a year, and lived “a very comfortable life” with a girlfriend. He said he was willing to sacrifice it all because he can’t “in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

Snowden also told The Guardian, “We hack everyone everywhere. We like to make a distinction between us and the others. But we are in almost every country in the world. We are not at war with these countries.”

This is of course not sitting well with other nations. Especially China, where Snowden claimed that the US had hacked hundreds of targets in Hong Kong – including public officials, a university, businesses and students in the city – and on the mainland.

The China Daily article addressed the issue directly. It quoted Li Haidon, a researcher of American studies at the China Foreign Affairs University, as saying: “For months Washington has been accusing China of cyber-espionage but it turns out that the biggest threat to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the US is the unbridled power of the government.”

Many people condemn the Prism program, such as the free-speech lobby group, Index on Censorship.

“Mass surveillance is a major chill to free expression and so undermines the right to free speech as well as the right to privacy,” the group wrote in a statement, calling on the EU’s Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman van Rompuy to “stand up against mass surveillance on the scale seen in the Prism program and to stand by the EU’s position against mass surveillance.”

Kirsty Hughes, the group’s CEO, believes, “This is not about the targeted surveillance of criminals but surveillance of private citizens on a massive scale. It is the kind of free speech violation we expect from Iran and China, not a democracy like the US.”

Others want to see Snowden extradited and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Such as Peter King, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives counter-terrorism and intelligence subcommittee. He is quoted as saying, “This is a matter of extraordinary consequence to American intelligence.”

The Obama administration has made it clear that if Snowden is brought back for trial in the U.S., he will be prosecuted under the Espionage Act, which makes it an offense to take, retain, or transfer knowledge “with intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”

I have mixed feelings about Edward Snowden. It is clear we live in a dangerous world, and that intelligence services are of utmost importance. But does national security justify this kind of mass surveillance? Or does it take away the average individual’s basic right to privacy? Is the program legal?

Personally, I cannot imagine someone like Dick Cheney or Paul Ryan having this kind of power. And whenever people start saying slippery things like “we’re only giving up a little” of our rights for something (in this case protection from Cyberwarfare), then that’s probably a sign that we need to have a more open discussion about things.

Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to