Edward Snowden is many things to many people, and in recent days The New York Times and The Guardian have favorably editorialized about the overdue debate he has initiated. Rightly so, but both newspapers were wrong to prematurely declare him a whistleblower. Whistleblowers expose illegality and wrongdoing, and no matter what we think of its actions, it is not yet clear that the National Security Agency has been operating illegally or unconstitutionally. So, rather than blow a whistle, Mr. Snowden has shone a light on the extent to which technology, in particular cloud computing, has outstripped our laws and the Patriot Act may have exceeded its usefulness.
First, the matter of whistleblower. The Cambridge dictionary defines the term as “A person who tells someone in authority about something they believe to be illegal that is happening, especially in a government department or a company.” The Whistleblower Protection Act applies to federal employees who disclose “illegal or improper government activities.” Those who argue that the contractor Ed Snowden is a whistleblower, therefore, are deploying different definitions that are not currently rooted in law.