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John Sawers the head of M16 is seen attending an Intelligence and Security Committee hearing at Parliament. REUTERS/UK Parliament via REUTERS TV (BRITAIN - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS SOCIETY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNSREUTERS TV/Reuters

Earlier this week, Britain's spy chiefs testified before Parliament. American intelligence contractor turned leaker Edward Snowden, they told MPs, has undermined the security of the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies. Iain Lobban, head of the eavesdropping agency GCHQ, said that some of his organization targets now engage in "near-daily discussion" of Mr. Snowden's revelations. "Our adversaries are rubbing their hands in glee," said John Sawers, who heads Britain's foreign spy agency MI6. "Al-Qaeda is lapping it up."

Intelligence agencies are most at home in anonymity, secrecy and darkness. Their leaders don't tend to do much talking in public; it's not so long ago that the names of the U.K.'s agency chiefs could not even be published. Bright lights are not their thing. But this week's appearance before the British Parliament was public, and, more unusual still, televised. The fact that Mr. Snowden revealed trade secrets of spycraft has upset senior spooks around the world. But it's the contents of those revelations that have disturbed the public, and with good reason. The klieg lights have been turned on spy agencies from Washington to London to Ottawa, because the public is now asking: Just what have our supposed protectors been up to? Is a core Western, democratic value – privacy – being steamrolled by the potentially limitless demands of national security? And must our intelligence agencies monitor and gather all of this information? Or are they simply doing it because, for the first time, thanks to new technologies, they can?

Mr. Snowden's leaks to the Guardian and other news sources reveal an American intelligence apparatus of unprecedented scale and reach. If you imagine the world's data stream of e-mails and phone calls as a flow of water through a giant pipe, the U.S. National Security Agency appears to essentially have the ability to force that flow to pass through its filter. The details of the NSA's operations have come as a surprise to the general public, to many of the world's largest (and mostly U.S.-based) Internet companies, and even to many lawmakers in Washington, some of whom thought they knew what the NSA was up to, only to discover that it appears to have been up to somewhat more.

Even Canada has had a part in Mr. Snowden's revelations. Last month, documents originating with Snowden were leaked to the Brazilian media; they appear to show that the Communications Security Establishment Canada – known as CSEC, it is Canada's equivalent of the U.S. NSA and Britain's GSHQ – had been monitoring internal communications within Brazil's Mines and Energy Ministry. Canada is one of the so-called Five Eyes – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. – who closely share signals intelligence information.

Most readers can remember a time when tracing a phone call was a big deal; 20 years ago, TV shows could build plausible plot twists around the difficulty the police had in tracking down the location of a call. That's not the world any more.

In his appearance before the U.K. parliament, Mr. Lobban, head of the signals intelligence agency that monitors communications, said that his job was like trying to find "fragments of needles" in an "enormous hayfield." The hayfield in his metaphor is society. And we are the hay. It's our personal information and communications: phone calls, e-mails, browsing histories, personal records, and so on.

The U.S. government sees Edward Snowden as a traitor, and has every intention of putting him on trial, should it ever get its hands on him. (He earlier this year fled to Russia.) His supporters say he's a whistle-blower, akin to Daniel Ellsberg, the man who in 1971 leaked the Pentagon Papers. Just like Mr. Snowden, Mr. Ellsberg was a government contractor with access to important documents; in his case, a giant research study and history of the Vietnam war, which revealed that the U.S. government had not been entirely truthful with the public about the progress and the conduct of the war. He leaked the study to the New York Times. The Pentagon Papers came as a shock to the public, and to lawmakers. Mr. Ellsberg, like Mr. Snowden, was initially accused of espionage and conspiracy. He was even charged, though those charges were ultimately dropped. He is today mostly seen as a hero of open government and free speech.

Is Edward Snowden a hero? No government wants employees making its secrets public, and in most cases, the public feels the same. It's a firing offence, even a crime, and in almost all cases it should be. But we also have the legal concept of a whistle-blower: someone who brings wrongdoing to light, and makes public that which must not be allowed to remain private. There is no question that Mr. Snowden brought to light things that the public needed to know, and started a public debate that needed to happen. The U.S. Congress and allied governments have been moved to action and debate because of what Snowden told them about their own intelligence agencies.

There's is no perfect balance that can ever be struck between privacy and national security. In a post-9/11 world, the arguments of national security were often treated as irresistible, and impossible to counter. Mr. Snowden's revelations have altered the debate, and for the better.