“They could just spy on the world without telling a soul. The American government, in total disregard of its founding charter, fell victim to precisely this temptation. In secret, it assumed the power of mass surveillance, an authority that by definition afflicts the innocent far more than the guilty. It was only when I came to a fuller understanding of this surveillance and its harms that I became haunted by the awareness that we the public—the public of not just one country but of all the world—had never been granted a vote or even a chance to voice our opinion in this process. The system of near-universal surveillance had been set up not just without our consent, but in a way that deliberately hid every aspect of its programs from our knowledge. To whom could I turn? Who could I talk to? Even to whisper the truth, even to a lawyer or a judge or to Congress, had been made so severe a felony that just a basic outlining of the broadest facts would invite a lifetime sentence in a federal cell.”
“The freedom of a country can only be measured by its respect for the rights of its citizens, and it’s my conviction that these rights are in fact limitations of state power that define exactly where and when a government may not infringe into that domain of personal or individual freedoms that during the American Revolution was called ‘liberty’ and during the Internet Revolution is called ‘privacy’.
It’s been six years since I came forward because I witnessed a decline in the commitment of so-called advanced governments throughout the world to protecting this privacy, which I regard—and the United Nations regards—as a fundamental human right. In the span of those years, however, this decline has only continued as democracies regress into authoritarian populism.”
[from: Edward Snowden, Permanent Record, Metropolitan Books, 2019, Preface.]
Imagine you, the citizens (the “principals”), delegate some tasks for your protection to an agency (security, police, armed forces). You cannot observe everything they do yourself, so you set some rules and constraints on their practice, and appoint some monitors (government, judicial system) to check and impose some accountability on that agency. The problem is that the agents’ own interests and agenda are often not aligned with yours: especially when wielding instruments of power, they may tend to use them to expand their own power, and use it even against you. Moreover, the nature of their work requires some secrecy, which makes it harder for external monitors to see and report misbehavior in real time; and the monitors themselves (government) are often ‘captured’, i.e. they tend to side more with the agency than with you.
The problem is aggravated by the fact that the agents in a team or organization tend to enforce a “code of silence” among themselves (through various formal or informal sanctions and mutual protection), to ensure members remain loyal to the agency itself and do not inform external parties of any deviation from the principals’ stated goals. As we wrote in the introduction of a paper with A. Bisin (here) dealing with formal theoretical aspects of these moral hazard issues: “informants within teams are exceptions, usually ostracized, harassed and subjected to social sanctions by their teammates; for this reason, in many private and public institutions whistleblowers rarely come forward and need to be formally protected when they do.”
In those contexts, whistleblowers play an important role in warning us about and therefore prevent abuses of power. To protect our freedom, we need to encourage people involved in structures of power (public and private) to blow the whistle when they witness practices in violation of our rights and liberties. People like Snowden should be commended and protected, not prosecuted or forced into exile. But no warning will be effective if we don’t act upon them to radically reform our laws and institutions, in order to prevent as much as possible those deviations in the first place.