When you become a whistleblower

Yesterday Edward Snowden came forward and outed himself as the whistleblower who leaked information about Boundless Informant. This system developed by the NSA with major corporations, enables raw data to be analyzed and processed in the cloud, including IP addresses, so sender and recipient information can be tracked to rough location. I’m not going to politicize here, but I do want to talk about how Edward Snowden chooses his words.

In the remarkable interview with the Guardian about why he blew the whistle on the NSA, Edward Snowden uses the second person ‘you’ to hedge the details of his unique role and position. The speaker using ‘you’ disguises and generalizes his own experience and range of choices, inviting ‘you’, the listener, to imagine how you or anyone else would do the same thing if it happened to you. Likewise, he uses the simple present to generalize rather than the past tense to report on what he did.

‘When you’re in positions of privileged access like a systems administrator for these sort of intelligence community agencies, you’re exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale than the average employee. And because of that you see things that – uh – may be disturbing. But over the course of a normal person’s career you’d only see one or two of these instances. When you see everything, you see them on a more frequent basis, and you recognize that some of these things are actually abuses, and when you talk to people about them – uh – in a place like this where this is the normal state of business, people tend not to take them very seriously and, you know, move on from them. But over time, that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up, and you feel compelled to talk about it. And the more you talk about it, the more you’re ignored, the more you’re told it’s not a problem, until eventually you realize that – uh – these things need to be determined by the public, not by somebody who is simply hired by the government.”

Overall, he comes across as quiet and self-effacing, and very principled when he uses ‘I’:

  • ‘I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things’
  • ‘I do not expect to see home again’

For the full interview see the Guardian (interview by Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong, 12min 35sec)

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Anne

Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

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