The ethics of whistleblowing, leaking and disclosure

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Edward Snowden, a low-level private contractor to the US-based National Security Agency (NSA), breached prima facie legal and moral confidentiality/secrecy obligations by engaging in unauthorized accessing, retrieving and/or releasing of a large volume of confidential data from NSA to the press and, possibly, to foreign powers, for example China or Russia. This raises a raft of ethical issues in relation to whistleblowing, leaking and disclosure. In this entry I undertake three tasks. First (section 1), I discuss the nature of whistleblowing with a view to differentiating it from other forms of unauthorized disclosure, for example leaking. Second (section 2), I provide analyses of the moral principles of privacy and confidentiality, and differentiate these from the (arguably) non-moral principles of anonymity and secrecy (respectively). The principles of privacy and confidentiality have inherent moral weight – in a sense clarified below – and, as such, can justify non-disclosure. The same is not true of anonymity and secrecy. Rather anonymity and secrecy only have instrumental value, if and when they have value. Finally (section 3), I consider some of the arguments for and against different forms of unauthorized disclosure and do so in the context of the public’s right to know, the public’s right to security, as well as the principles of privacy and confidentiality.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Palgrave Handbook of Security, Risk and Intelligence
EditorsRobert Dover, Huw Dylan, Michael S Goodman
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781137536754
ISBN (Print)9781137536747
Publication statusPublished - 05 Jul 2017


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