Cyber espionage, whistle-blowers and patriotism

The recent leaks by former American National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden have raised the issue of how governments involved in comprehensive cyber espionage can protect themselves from whistle-blowers. The issue appears particularly pressing for those governments most commonly accused of being involved in cyber espionage—the American and Chinese ones. Of course, governments may make sure that their employees receive a high salary so that they will be unlikely to blow the whistle. At the same time, the question is how far money will satisfy those involved in shady activities such as espionage.

A strong sense of patriotism might be more likely to stop whistle-blowers. If those involved in espionage believe that what they are doing is for the good of the nation or country they might be willing to support what are obviously infringements on people’s rights and privacy. Love of the country becomes a greater good that trumps civil and other rights. People who take up jobs in espionage probably identify strongly with their countries and may be willing to do things for the country that otherwise might be considered questionable. Government agencies involved in espionage are likely to employ people who exhibit a strong love for their country in order to avoid whistle-blowing incidents. Following such an understanding, it is only to be expected that whistle-blowers like Snowden be labelled ‘traitors’.

Nonetheless, there are limits to relying on patriotism. Those who blow the whistle may understand patriotism in ways that differ from what their governments envisage. That is most probably the reason why they blow the whistle to begin with. They understand blowing the whistle to be a patriotic action because they do not believe that the ends justify the means. When cyber espionage infringes on people’s rights to an extent that exceeds what spies are willing to do in the name of patriotism whistle blowing becomes a patriotic action.

At the heart of the matter is the impossibility of fixing the meaning of patriotism. Different ways of interpreting its meaning and different ways of expressing patriotism will always be possible. Even if a dominant understanding becomes fixed to some extent, redefinition is always possible. The Snowden episode is a case in point as opinion polls among Americans have shown the majority does not consider him to be a traitor. This means that at least in democratic societies where the general idea is that the ends do not justify the means it is not possible for governments to avoid whistle-blowers. Increasing surveillance of those who work in espionage may lead to an even larger number of whistle-blowers stepping forward as it is likely the use of authoritarian methods that cause people to blow the whistle.

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