Why the author has written leaker instead of spy in the context?

NSA leaker Edward Snowden's best chance of finding refuge outside the United States may hinge on the president of Venezuela, who was in Moscow on Tuesday meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

How can you find which one is the best to use?

  • 3
    Probably because the author meant one who leaks rather than one who spies. – snailcar Jul 2 '13 at 12:36
  • Edward Snowdon was never a spy. He worked for agencies that ALSO have spies – mplungjan Jul 2 '13 at 13:17

Per other comments/answers, a spy is normally someone who doesn't have "legitimate" access to confidential information in the first place. A typical spy uses illegal methods to obtain secret information and hand it over to whatever government department or other large organisation pays him.

A leaker is normally someone who already has access to secrets as part of his job, but breaks any non-disclosure agreement he may have signed by passing those secrets on to the press, or otherwise putting them in the public domain. He's not usually paid for this, and normally acts out of a "sense of duty".

But I should point out that leaker is a rather strange choice for this context. It's usually whistleblower...

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  • 2
    I think that "whistleblower" has more of a positive connotation, while "leaker" is more neutral. – Daniel Jul 2 '13 at 17:29
  • @Daniel: In principle I suppose I have to agree, but for me leaker sounds like a rather childish word, and that far outweighs any supposed "neutrality" in a news report, for example. Suffice it to say until this question I'd never come across the usage. But we've had Julian Assange holed up in the Ecuadorian in London for nearly a year now, plus a constant stream of new leaks emerging in relation to security services, big business, the NHS, etc. So not a day passes without me hearing the word whistleblower on the news at some point. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 2 '13 at 17:39
  • I think the information a whistleblower makes public is secret only in the "hope nobody saw that" sense, not in the "top secret/classified" sense as with Snowden (or with Assange, for that matter). – Martha Jul 2 '13 at 18:14
  • @Martha: I'm not sure I understand the distinction there. To my mind, being a whistleblower strongly implies that you're prepared for own identity to be made public, as well as the "classified" information you leak. Strictly speaking I see Assange more as a "subversive publicist", who gets most of his information from "informants/moles". Whatever - I think the usage chart pretty decisively shows that whistleblower is more "popular" (in both senses) than leaker, and I imagine they usually refer to the same type of person. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 2 '13 at 18:27
  • I see a definite difference between the two words, but I'm having trouble articulating it. Certainly intent matters: I see a leaker as publishing information for the sake of that information becoming public, while a whistleblower publishes information for the sake of making a practice public - the information itself is just the means to that end, not the end in itself as with a leaker. (For what it's worth, I think Snowden is both a whistleblower and a leaker. The one thing he's not is a spy, the state department's ridiculous charges notwithstanding.) – Martha Jul 2 '13 at 19:05

A spy is someone who specifically seeks to acquire secret knowledge for the express purpose of turning it to advantage (usually monetary, and generally either by selling it to some interested third party, or because they were hired by the third party to acquire it in the first place).

A leaker is someone who, having legitimately gained access to secret knowledge, puts that information out into the public sphere. (This may be a conscious act or an inadvertent exposure.) Monetary considerations may be involved, but need not be, and are probably not the primary motivation for the leak.

Since Snowden was a legitimate NSA employee who decided to reveal secret knowledge to the public with no monetary considerations involved, he clearly falls into the "leaker" category.

  • 1
    I don't know why you'd say a spy's motives are "usually monetary". The word "spy" is most commonly used to refer to people attempting to get information about the activities of an enemy country in order to give their own country an advantage in time of war or other conflict. Most such spies are motivated by a desire to see their own nation win the conflict, i.e. patriotism, and not my monetary reward. There is such a thing as "corporate espionage", where spies try to get information from another company for monetary advantage. ... – Jay Jul 2 '13 at 17:24
  • ... And there are spies who will sell information they steal to the highest bidder. I'm not saying that NO spies are motivated by money. Just that I doubt that this is the most common motive. – Jay Jul 2 '13 at 17:25
  • I also disagree with the idea that a leaker must necessarily have gained "legitimate" access to secret knowledge. I really don't think that the distinction has anything to do with how the person got access to the information, but rather with what they do with it. Someone who illegally gained knowledge of classified information and then turned it over to the press would (in my opinion) be called a leaker. – Daniel Jul 2 '13 at 17:28
  • @Jay: I'm not sure about what the "usual" motive is, but money is indeed a common motive. It's at the top of this list. – J.R. Jul 8 '13 at 2:09

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