What is there left to say about Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who leaked thousands of confidential NSA documents to the media in 2013? His actions drove to the fore serious questions about data privacy and security. Three years on, and with a star-studded film now bringing his thrilling personal story to the big screen, both sides continue trying to untangle the question, “who is protecting whom?”

Snowden caused us to question whether governments are sincerely trying to protect us by secretly collecting our data, or if renegades like himself are keeping us safe by exposing their schemes. No matter where you stand, there is no denying that big data is opening up new questions about surveillance, freedom, privacy and protection in our digital present and future.

Those who consider Snowden a hero say whistleblowers play a valuable role in society by exposing questionable activities that people in power try to keep secret because they know the public wouldn’t be happy about them. They say he saw the NSA’s dangerous, unconstitutional activity, and felt he had to act to protect our civil liberties.

Some who call him a traitor argue that he knew he was carrying out criminal activity, and that should have been enough to stop him. Their point is that in a democracy, his reckless vigilantism wasn’t necessary – he could have taken advantage of federal whistleblower laws, brought details of the spying to Congress, or protested within his organization.

Others against what he did say Snowden had no right to act on such a complex and far-reaching issue based on his own moral standards – that his ego drove him to do it. They question what would happen if all employees decided to do the same if they saw something they didn’t like related to something they might not completely understand.

Edward Snowden’s actions came at a time when the data privacy movement needed a figurehead. That said, to achieve a safer world we need to keep the argument over data privacy balanced and resist the urge to blindly rage against the spying machine. Criminals bent on harm are using the Internet to accomplish their heinous goals, and the only way to combat them is to track their online behavior.

The real question is where does defending our civil liberties end and violating our civil liberties begin in the online world? Not everyone wants data for the wrong reasons – in fact, most reasonable people would probably agree that more people want it for ‘good’ than ‘bad’ – we simply lack a moral standard to judge these online activities by.

We are living the ‘Wild West’ of data privacy right now, but by persistently debating the issue in the public realm we can more towards a more civilized digital future. Fittingly, the film Snowden focuses on the drama itself, leaving viewers to continue trying to make up their own minds.


Catch the world premiere of Snowden on September 9 as part of Our Digital Future presented by SAP at Toronto International Film Festival.

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