Every day computers track what we’re doing on the internet.
Until a few years ago, Americans were unaware of how much information the United States collected on their own citizens as well as people across the globe.
In 2013, a young computer engineer named Edward Snowden risked his life to expose the nature of American surveillance. His revelations demonstrated that the US government, in violation of its own Constitution, was collecting massive quantities of information on its citizens and foreigners alike without public knowledge or accountability.
Now the subject of a new Oliver Stone film, Snowden’s efforts once again are in the spotlight. Whether you applaud or revile him, his efforts provide a lesson on internet privacy and our rights as American citizens.
Namecheap has partnered with TechDirt to bring you an Internet Privacy Bill of Rights. Below as part of our ongoing series of posts leading up to Internet Privacy Week (Oct 18-24), we’ll briefly look at who Snowden is and what he accomplished.
Who is Edward Snowden?
Edward Snowden started out as a high school dropout who, at the age of 30, became the most notorious whistleblower of the 21st century.
Outraged by the events of 9/11, he joined the US Army in 2004. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he said he signed up because he felt “an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression.” However, his army career was short-lived, as injuries he received during training exercises led to a medical discharge.
After leaving the army, Snowden took a job as a security guard with the National Security Agency (NSA) and by the middle of 2006 he had trained as a technology specialist with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 2007 the CIA assigned him to a post in Geneva, Switzerland. Two years later he left the CIA and began to work for several companies that contracted with the NSA.
Increasingly disillusioned by the work he was doing, and having gained insight into the NSA’s massive surveillance activities, Snowden decided in 2013 to reveal some of the NSA’s wide-ranging surveillance efforts.
He fled the US to Hong Kong in May 2013. It was here that he first released documents to the world through the UK newspaper, The Guardian. Under threat of deportation and arrest, he hoped to travel to Ecuador but was unable to do so. He now lives under asylum in Russia.
What Exactly Did Snowden Do?
With his top security clearance, Snowden had access to massive quantities of surveillance materials and procedures.
In early 2013, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate committee under oath that the NSA does not knowingly collect information on the majority of American citizens. Snowden knew this statement to be a lie. According to Wired magazine, after the article came out Snowden recalled asking his coworkers, “can you believe this s***?”
Snowden recognized that he had to do something, but that doing so would come at great risk to himself. As he said,
“It’s really hard to take that step—not only do I believe in something, I believe in it enough that I’m willing to set my own life on fire and burn it to the ground.”
In order to prove what the NSA was doing, Snowden downloaded thousands of documents from government servers (no one is quite sure how much data he collected). The documents he possessed proved that the NSA had been recording the phone conversations, browser activity, and emails of millions of Americans as well as collecting sensitive data from companies such as Verizon, Google, and Yahoo.
From Hong Kong, Snowden reached out to the journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. Together they arranged for The Guardian to publish a series of articles revealing the nature of US surveillance on June 5, 2013. Five days later, Snowden voluntarily revealed himself as the one responsible for the leaks in an interview filmed by Poitras.
In response, US officials charged Snowden with several crimes under the 1917 Espionage Act, including charges of theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence. Each charge carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
A Controversial Figure
Depending on your viewpoint, Snowden is either a hero or a traitor.
There is no question that he broke the law by downloading and exposing government secrets.
The issue at hand is whether or not the ends justify the means, and if his actions can be understood within the context they occurred.
Privacy and free speech advocates champion Snowden’s actions as brave and selfless, providing crucial information that could not have been exposed any other way. In fact, as a result of his revelations, the US Congress passed the USA Freedom Act in 2015. This new law revises some of the provisions of the Patriot Act, limiting the powers of the NSA to collect data on individuals in the US and abroad.
Furthermore, Amnesty International, one of a number of organizations calling for Snowden’s pardon, states:
“His courage changed the world. He sparked a global debate, changing laws and helping to protect our privacy. Edward Snowden is a human rights hero, yet he faces decades in prison under charges that treat him like a spy who sold secrets to enemies of the USA.”
Meanwhile, many politicians and security personnel decry what Snowden did as dangerous to American security interests, and worry that giving Snowden amnesty will give a green light to other whistleblowers in the US government. The Guardian quotes former NSA Director Michael Hayden as saying,
“For any president to align himself with Snowden’s approach in this controversy would carry an incredible cost to the spirit and morale of the intelligence community.”
Dislike for Snowden goes beyond politics as well. In an interview, Microsoft founder Bill Gates expressed to Rolling Stone:
“I think he broke the law, so I certainly wouldn’t characterize him as a hero… You won’t find much admiration from me.”
Three years later, as the film Snowden opens in theaters, the debate continues. Still living in Russia, Snowden has not yet answered to US authorities for his actions.
However, it’s a mistake to think he’s hiding from arrest. He’s prepared to go to jail for his actions. One of his conditions is to receive a fair trial, something that is impossible under the Espionage Act of 1917, which calls for trial without jury. He also fears his imprisonment would discourage other whistleblowers, as he told The Guardian:
“I’ve volunteered to go to prison with the government many times. What I won’t do is I won’t serve as a deterrent to people trying to do the right thing in difficult situations.”
Most of all, he thinks he should receive consideration for the service he provided to his government, and he still considers himself a patriot. From The Guardian in September 2016:
“Yes, there are laws on the books that say one thing, but that is perhaps why the pardon power exists – for the exceptions, for the things that may seem unlawful in letters on a page but when we look at them morally, when we look at them ethically, when we look at the results, it seems these were necessary things, these were vital things… I think when people look at the calculations of benefit, it is clear that in the wake of 2013 the laws of our nation changed. The [US] Congress, the courts and the president all changed their policies as a result of these disclosures. At the same time there has never been any public evidence that any individual came to harm as a result.”
Snowden is still waiting to hear whether he will be granted any form of amnesty or special consideration if he returns to the U.S.
What You Can Do
At Namecheap, we want to encourage you to become better informed about your rights in whichever country you live, and to think about the kinds of information businesses and governments collect every day.
With our upcoming Internet Privacy Week (Oct. 18-24), we hope to provide you with more information about ways your information can be tracked. By signing our Internet Privacy Bill of Rights, to be unveiled on Oct. 18th, we encourage you to take a stand for internet privacy for all.
Jackie Dana is the Senior Content Manager at Namecheap.com, and an advocate of internet privacy, civil liberties, and free speech around the world.
Snowden image sources: