Is Edward Snowden a Hero or a Villain?

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The life of Edward Snowden would make for a pretty good spy thriller. The former technical contractor for the National Security Agency has thrilled and chilled the world with disclosures of sensitive documents, unveiling a vast system of government monitoring across phone lines and online services. Brad Thor and Tom Clancy are probably getting their first drafts ready as we speak.

But would Snowden be the hero or the international supervillain in these books?

You'll find lots of people arguing for each of the opposing views. Here's how the core arguments break down:



When Snowden stole and distributed these documents, he broke the law and became a traitor to America herself. He needs to be punished, and harshly.

Snowden uncovered some deeply uncomfortable truths and should be protected the same way a corporate whistleblower would.

Snowden is no better than the Anonymous hacker group, or Wikileaks, or your average KGB agent.

He took a big personal risk on behalf of ordinary Americans, and should be rewarded like a hero.

Top-secret documents are secret for a reason, after all.

These files weren't secret because the life of American operatives depend on them -- they're just too embarrassing for everyone involved.

Snowden is making it harder to catch terrorists and other threats to national security.

Snowden is making it harder for the American government to spy on American citizens.

Love it or hate it
There's hardly any middle ground here. Either you hate Snowden and his actions, or you simply love what he did. You probably feel strongly about this yourself, dear reader -- but I can't predict which way you're leaning. Some opinion polls tilt in Snowden's favor and others lean the other way -- always by slim margins. Feel free to join the debate in the comments box below.

Google and Facebook responded to Snowden's leaks by pushing back against the government procedures he described. Big G CEO Larry Page took exception to some of the leaked claims in a blog post titled, "What the ...?" Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn't go for Google's titular theatrics but said that the press reports are "outrageous" and wrong in many respects.

Both companies explained that they don't provide blanket access to their data for the NSA, the FBI, the CIA, or anyone else. Instead, they review each information request by hand and comply only if required by law. And then there are laws restricting them from telling us about it. A week after the data surveillance leak, both Facebook and Google had petitioned Congress to lift those restrictions. Microsoft joined the request as well.

Why these three musketeers?
Now, Facebook absolutely depends on the trust of its users. The core service is a collection of private information, after all. Sure, many Facebook posts are meant to be seen and shared, but far from all of it. There are private chat sessions, contact data, and posts aimed at particular audiences via Facebook's privacy attributes. The company has access to treasure troves of highly private information that nobody wants to share with the press, with Uncle Sam, or with anyone else.

Google also has plenty of incentive to keep this debate in the open but user information close to the vest. Some people already avoid Google because they don't like how tightly its search services tie into advertising efforts. If you think Google would unscrupulously hand over sensitive user information or personal search patterns to the first goon that comes a-knocking, alternative search engines are only a click away.

Microsoft is a less clear-cut case of self-serving interest. Yes, its Bing catalog of search tools and other online services does fall under the same trust-based umbrella as Facebook and Google. But it's a very small part of Microsoft's huge software-centric business model. I'm a little bit surprised to see Redmond take a stand for privacy and transparency when it's not crucial to the business.

Personally, I fall on the side that says Snowden is a heroic whistleblower. Here's why.

Rumors of massive surveillance systems have always floated around. Now the idea has leaped from tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories to the realm of public discourse. Government agencies and members of Congress openly discuss these data collection efforts now, albeit in the most guarded ways possible. I think it's healthy to shine a light on the inner workings of our intelligence efforts.

Snowden's leaks didn't stop the data collection. They also didn't stop the NSA's targets from talking on American phones or data networks. You might say that the whole saga just pushed the suspected terrorists further underground, using new communications methods that are impossible to track with current methods. They know we're listening, so it's time to get new tools.

OK. That's one more step in the eternal dance between good guys and bad guys. We make it harder to talk; they dive deeper. At least the moves were made in public this time and might leave a lasting legacy of better privacy policies. Not just for Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, but for American citizens in general.

That would be something worth fighting for.

The endgame
At this point, Edward Snowden's work is pretty much done. Unless he left the juiciest disclosures for last, he's opened the door to a semi-informed discussion about American surveillance efforts that may or may not change the world. The final chapters of his spy thriller come down to seeking asylum somewhere in Latin America, with the very agencies he talked about chasing him every step of the way. Like I said, call Tom Clancy.

For the rest of us, I hope to see more transparency around data collection efforts. I don't mean sending me an email every time the FBI goes looking for my search history, but I do want more information about the number and scope of national security requests -- which is exactly what the companies I've mentioned are lobbying for.

The Washington efforts might not change the world. If Congress doesn't take action on these petitions, the public will have forgotten all about Snowden by the time it's all said and done. But the fact that Google and Facebook are asking for permission to share more metadata about the process (oh, sweet irony!) makes me more comfortable already.

And that's a start.

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The article Is Edward Snowden a Hero or a Villain? originally appeared on

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares of Google, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Check out Anders' bio and holdings or follow him on Twitter and Google+. The Motley Fool recommends Facebook and Google and owns shares of Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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