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This case will focus on a high school dropout turned National Security Agency (NSA) analyst, Edward Snowden. Snowden rose from the meager circumstances he was born into in 1983 to become the man responsible for the largest leak of classified information in the history of the United States (Edward Joseph Snowden, 2014).  In May 2013, Edward Snowden boarded a flight to  Hong Kong, China, leaving behind a six figure salary, a live-in girlfriend, and a prestigious job at one of the nation’s most exclusive government agencies.  With him on that flight were a yet unknown number of top-secret NSA documents disclosing sensitive information about U.S. surveillance on phone and internet communications, which he would later illegally leak to various media sources including the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post. Despite extensive searches the NSA has uncovered only a single email inquiry by Snowden to the NSA Office of General Counsel (OGC) which sought information on a training course and did not raise other concerns or whistleblower allegations (Edward J. Snowden email inquiry to the NSA Office of General Counsel, 2014).  Due to the nature of the files’ content, Washington lawmakers have pushed for his aggressive prosecution, and he has since sought asylum in Russia upon the revocation of his U.S. passport by the U.S. State Department (Why is Snowden in Russia? 'Ask the State Department,' he says, 2014).  The analysis below will not explore whether Snowden’s actions were right or wrong, but explain his actions in terms of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory.

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs breaks down needs into basic and higher level needs. Basic needs are biological needs, safety needs, and protection from dangers or threats, such as eating, drinking, living in a house and working (PSU, 2014). Some people include love and social interaction in these basic needs while others feel they are in the higher level along with self-actualization.  This higher order is considered to be made up of friendship, belongingness, esteem, and self-fulfillment, or personal growth.

Edward Snowden had his basic needs covered. Snowden, in an interview with the Guardian, acknowledged that he had a good life (Greenwald, MacAskill, & Poistras, 2013). However, as basic needs were met, a need to fulfill higher needs was realized. Glenn Greenwald had said about Snowden in the Rolling Stone article that, “he had no power, no prestige, he grew up in a lower-middle-class family, totally obscure, totally ordinary… he didn't even have a high school diploma” (Reitman 2013). Snowden’s modest upbringing left him searching for a more purposeful meaning in life. He found this meaning in illegally disclosing to the public allegations that the United States government was monitoring personal electronic information of its citizens.

Edward Snowden made a valid attempt at self-actualization by making a fearless move in defying the United States government and exposing highly classified information.  This is discussed in an article by Kendra Cherry published on Individuals that have achieved self-actualization “...are motivated by a strong sense of personal ethics and responsibility.” (Cherry, n.d.).  As previously mentioned, Snowden felt that his actions were out of a personal attempt to convict the unethical actions of the United States government.  He felt that it was his responsibility to notify the United States citizens of the attempts their government was making to monitor personal data.  Another characteristic of a self-actualized person is spontaneity (Cherry, n.d.).  They can be unpredictable in their outward behavior despite typically following the rules.  Snowden’s actions surprised the world because he risked his very safe and ideal type of life in the name of a greater good.  By his actions, he was able to experience self-actualization if even for a short period of time.  Maslow estimated that only about one in one hundred people reached self actualization (consider, additionally, any changes over the years since 1970) (Mcleod, 2007).  

While Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is broken down into five basic needs the understanding of these needs are far more complex. However, with better application and understanding of Maslow’s hierarchy theory by Snowden's superiors and perhaps the U.S. Government, they may have noticed his discontent and been able to satisfy his needs without putting the safety of the nation at risk. In Snowden's case, esteem or social encouragement could have counterbalanced his need for self-actualization. That being said, self-actualization is hard to define and even harder to predict (PSU, 2014).  Having such vague definitions, needs theories have a hard time offering resolutions to issues and/or problems.  Combined with other observations and safeguard methods it may help to identify when individual motivations may be detrimental to others. Could Edward Snowden's actions have been prevented with an examination of the needs theory? We will have to continue to work to better define the more philosophical parts of Maslow’s theory with future research if we expect to answer that question.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Snowden’s Life Before Leak

 Effect of imprisonment / prosecution on Snowden

 Resulted in / Snowden’s Current perspective
Biological : need for food, water, oxygen, activity and sleepNone of these were threatened

possibility of imprisonment will curtail some of these things

incessant interrogations

possible torture

avoiding that by not returning to the U.S.
Safety: need to be cared for and have secure income

was making up to $200k annually as a contractor with Booz Hamilton living in Hawaii

imprisonment will not allow Snowden to work

trial proceedings will be costly.
currently in Russia seeking asylum for safety.
Belongingness and love: need to be part of groups, to participate in affectionate sexual and non-sexual relationshipsHas a community of family and colleagues, as well as a live-in girlfriend

He will be isolated, even during the course of his trial:

Because he was charged under the Espionage Act, Snowden says he has no chance to make a public defense of his case. "You are not allowed to argue based on all the evidence in your favor because that evidence may be classified," he said. "When people say, 'Why don't you face the music?' I say, 'You have to understand the music is not an open court and a fair trial.'"

-While not much mention of his friends and family in the media, seems he is eager to return to the U.S.

On family: “"I miss my family. I miss my home. I miss my colleagues. I miss the work."”

On living in Russia: "But even though I didn't choose to be here, even though circumstances really trapped me here, I can adapt. I can live life as an American more or less. That's the beauty of the Internet is that we're no longer tied to our communities by physical connections," he said.
esteem: need to be respected as a useful, honorable individual. Snowden had a prestigious job were many of his colleagues respected him and his work.

Criminal justice system categorizes Snowden as a spy, and there is media and portions of the general public who agree

Media and government have tried to discredit him by claiming he is a low-level hacker, yet Snowden claims to have been trained as a spy.
He is still granting interviews and raising awareness about his case; Snowden is also combatting the misinformation media and governement is upholding/disseminating
self-actualization: reaching fullest potential. people motivated by this need explore and enhance relationships with others, follow interests for intrinsic pleasure rather than for money, status or esteem. concerned with issues affecting all people, not just themselves.Snowden sees what he did as an honorable duty for the American people - sees himself as a “patriot”imprisonment could lead to Snowden seeing himself as a martyr in which case he could still achieve the self-actualization he is looking for.

Snowden sees what he did as an honorable duty the American people - sees himself as a “patriot” and

"It's really frustrating for someone who's working so hard to expand the domain of our rights and our privacy to end up stuck in a place where those rights are being challenged in ways that I would consider deeply unfair," he said.


Booz Allen Statement on Reports of Leaked Information. (n.d.). Strategy and Technology Consulting Firm. Retrieved May 31, 2014, from

Cavna, M. (2014, May 20). EDWARD SNOWDEN: As NSA leaker gets his own comic book today, the writer ‘leaks’ her inspiration and motivations. Washington Post. Retrieved May 31, 2014, from

Cherry, K. (n.d.). Characteristics of Self Actualized People. Psychology. Retrieved May 30, 2014, from

Cherry, K. (n.d.). What Is Self-Actualization?. Psychology. Retrieved May 29, 2014, from

Edward Joseph Snowden. (n.d.). Retrieved May 31, 2014, from

Edward J. Snowden email inquiry to the NSA Office of General Counsel. (2014, May 29). Retrieved May 30, 2014, from 

Greenwald, G., MacAskill, E., & Poitras, L. (2013, June 10). Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations. The Guardian. Retrieved May 31, 2014, from 

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Simply Psychology. Retrieved May 30, 2014 from

Reitman, J. (2013, December 4). Snowden and Greenwald: The men who leaked the secrets. Retrieved from:

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