Stopping the NSA, but at what cost?

by Cuirassier on April 7, 2015 - 5:15pm

In June 2013, Edward Snowden revealed himself to the public as the source for the disclosure of several thousands of classified documents that reveal secret global surveillance programs, many of which are run by the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States government.  Over the following months, a small portion of these documents have been published by several news outlets. As a result, citizens of countries under surveillance were outraged and created various social movements such as Stop Watching Us. However, are the representations of the 2013 global surveillance disclosures in the media ethical?

In the first of many articles published by The Guardian entitled “NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily”, a top secret court order is made available for the general public. The article explains how the NSA was allowed to collect the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon because of this agreement and how this is the first time that the public has seen this type of data collection under the Obama administration. As the situation with Edward Snowden develops, dozens of top secret documents are subsequently revealed to the public by newspapers such as Der Spiegel, Intercept, The Washington Post, Le Monde, and The Guardian (Electronic Frontier Foundation). Whilst the reporting of deceptive government actions is commendable, is the need to show these documents really necessary?  

From a deontological perspective, the reporting of the NSA’s violation of the Fourth Amendment does follow all maxims of ethical journalism in the western media until it begins showing top secret information. From that point on, an article no longer follows one of the main values of journalism, which is the limitation of harm. In fact, many government officials argue that the Snowden leaks represent one of the most important losses to national intelligence ever and that they have seriously undermined national security while slowing the progress towards the implementation of measures preventing acts of terrorism. Thus, even if the articles raise awareness on illegal global surveillance programs, the publication of these top secret documents causes more harm than necessary which ultimately makes them unethical. Furthermore, the improper redacting of top secret documents could result in the unwanted exposure of NSA employees or important military locations. While this type of error is not present in this particular article, the latter was shown to have occurred before and the unnecessary risk taken each time a top secret file is disclose is enough to violate the rule to limit harm in journalism once again.  A counter argument that could be made is that such disclosures are required for credibility or proof when accusing the US government, but the excessive amount of documents that have emerged even after a large portion of the general public was informed make it clear that the representations of the global surveillance disclosures in the media are no longer ethical from a deontological perspective.

From a teleological utilitarian perspective where the summon bonum is the greatest good for the greatest amount of people, the representations of the 2013 global surveillance disclosures are even less ethical. That is, it can be argued that the article has been written, like many others, in a way to provoke a reaction. For example, most of the quotations used seem to paint the government as unwilling to take responsibility while pointing out the potential consequences of domestic spying programs on US citizens. Hence, the article seems to want to incite concern and anger towards the exposed governments rather than tell the news in an objective way. In doing so, the article is not seeking the greatest good for the greatest amount of people because even if government reforms will make people feel safer and happier in the long run, the anger and knee-jerk reactions produced by this type of article outweigh that happiness. President Obama himself states that "the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light" (National Public Radio). Furthermore, the impacts that these disclosures have on international relationships and national security are considerable sources of trouble, preventing good by hindering cooperation between nations and providing unhappiness by endangering people respectively. Thus, from a utilitarian teleological perspective, the representations of the 2013 global surveillance disclosures in the media are unethical.

Clearly, the lack of restrain from the media have contributed in more harm than necessary by continuing to disclose government secrets, making their representation unethical on a deontological perspective. Meanwhile, the provocative way in which articles have been written which result far more unhappiness than good make these representations equally unethical on a utilitarian teleological perspective.

Works Cited

     Greenwald, Glenn. “NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily”. The Guardian. 6 June 2013. Web. 7 April 2015. < >.

     “NSA Spying on Americas”. Electronic Frontier Foundation. n.d. Web. 7 April 2015. < >.

     “Transcript Of President Obama's Speech On NSA Reforms”. National Public Radio. 17 January 2014. Web. 7 April 2015. < >.



You article was very interesting! I have already written about this subject which is why I’ve decided to read your article, and also your title was very attractive. Even though I already knew a lot about this subject, I liked that you wrote in details all the facts about the situation very clearly. You used multiple sources that seem well-verified, and it seems like you have use those sources a lot. Also, I found it even more interesting since you brought the point of view of deontological perspective. I did not think about this issue from that perspective and even though I considered it unethical myself, this helped me find out why I thought it was not ethical. If you are interested on reading more on the subject, here is are two articles that were published in the New York Times.

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