Edward Snowden and the Hierarchy of Contracts

It seems as if every couple years a National Security Agency or surveillance story is leaked to exactly the same response: mass hysteria and public demands that the government release reports of just how deep these procedures dig. And it seems as if every couple years we forget that the same thing happened just a couple years ago. Questionable government surveillance procedures have been known and discussed since before 2008, but somehow we have pushed this knowledge into the back of our consciousness (that is, until the next leak).

The question is routinely posed: Is it ethical for the government to employ widespread surveillance measures without the knowledge of those under surveillance? Yet whether we like it or not, the government has dealt in the private information sector, legally or dubiously, for quite some time. Perhaps the more important question is, Which “contracts” should we honor?


The recent NSA scandal involving Edward Snowden seems to revolve around the question of contracts and their hierarchy. Private contractor Booz Allen Hamilton (and by extension, Snowden) signed a contract that the information that they were privy to was to remain confidential. The government functions (or at least ought to) under a contract with the people. These two contracts operate together: the private company confidentially maintains the government’s information, while the government is trusted to protect the rights of the people.

As a check, the people are also involved in a third contract. That is the ability to elect their government officials, supposedly guaranteeing their own best interest. This is perhaps the weakest and most indirect arrangement. But for this purpose, the people’s contract with the government is at least an attempt to check government power.

The problem starts when another contract is inserted into the equation. By leaking confidential information, Snowden created a contract between the Private Corporation and The People. While some may support Snowden for “blowing the whistle,” his actions disrupt the existing system of contracts, and invite an array of new problems.

These problems are complicated when we consider that Snowden is already involved himself in a contract with the government as an American citizen. Snowden assumed the role as government, and acted to protect people’s rights, leapfrogging the system. Although some may consider his actions honorable under the “check” contract, he still acted under information gained as a member of the private sector. We should enter relations with private companies with trepidation.

Snowden—whether intentionally or not—opened dialogue between the people and private companies. We must remind ourselves that this is a rare case: private companies do not always have our best interest in mind. We must also remind ourselves that Snowden is only one person. No matter what his intention, the result violated a contract between a corporation and the government in favor of creating a union with the private company and the people. It is this relationship that should be considered with caution.

Unlike our nation, founded with the essential purpose to protect our rights, Booz Allen Hamilton was founded with a different purpose: to make money. In our contract with our government, we have the Constitution to fall back on. If things get truly out of hand, our Constitution is a universal and unequivocal code that both parties must abide by. In dealings with private companies, no such document exists. It is not a two-way street. When private company employees hired by the government violate that contract by creating one with the people, the government seems to be the odd man out. We should be wary because when we lose our government, we also lose our only safeguard. Privatization without representation ensues.

If anything will lead to the 1984-esque scenario feared by some, it will be private companies entering into contracts with citizens. There have been no measures (except for the somewhat unrelated anti-trust laws) to monitor unfamiliar relationships between companies like Booz Allen Hamilton and American citizens. Even if Snowden’s actions were just, his leak sets the stage for what could be a very complicated relationship between the private sector and the people. In the end, Big Brother may end up being incorporated.

Jake Bonar, a senior at Canisius College, is a summer intern at America.

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