A hero, a traitor, a whistleblower, a patriot: these are words that still fail to encompass the controversy that Edward Snowden created back in 2013. Seven years later, the former National Security Agency (NSA) subcontractee and his wife, having been given asylum in Russia, are applying for citizenship in the Federation to not separate from their future son amidst a pandemic. This news revives the weight of a question many still struggle to answer: what did his actions entail in the search for a balance between national security and information privacy?
How it began
In May 2013, Edward Snowden told his former employer that he wanted to take a couple of weeks off work. He had been a subcontractee of the NSA for four years until that point. He then flew to Hong Kong, where he met with “The Guardian” journalists and the filmmaker Laura Poitras. The reasons? Disturbed by the domestic surveillance practices he found in top-secret NSA documents, he decided to leak them. More specifically, the documents unveiled extensive Internet and phone surveillance conducted by American intelligence. Although he was aware that he was risking his life, career, and relationships with those around him, Snowden was willing to make this sacrifice, as he could not let the “US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.” In June 2013, “The Guardian” released the documents received from Snowden. The paper published a secret court order that directed telecommunications company Verizon to hand over all its telephone data every day to the NSA.
Subsequently, the report had a snowball effect: the Washington Post and The Guardian later revealed that the NSA tapped directly into the servers of nine internet firms such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. The purpose was to track online communication for the surveillance program Prism. Other allegations stated that Snowden’s files suggested that the NSA conducted an eavesdropping operation where the Council of the European Union is located, namely Brussels. On the 24th of October, the German government summoned the United States ambassador after the German media reported another eavesdropping operation on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone. The White House did not deny bugging her phone before the incident, although former US President Barack Obama denied monitoring it at that time.
According to one of the secret files leaked to The Guardian, thirty-eight embassies and missions have been targeted by US spying operations. Japan, Italy, France, and Greece were a few of the countries involved. In mid-August, some documents leaked to the Washington Post suggested the NSA violates the US privacy laws multiple times a year.
Edward Snowden described his action as a reflection of his disapproval of the ubiquitous surveillance that the Internet implies. According to him, his reasons were personal: Snowden did not want to live in a world where a lack of privacy hindered creativity and intellectual emancipation. Regardless of his motives, it is difficult to label his actions as either good or bad. They are instead a spectrum that each actor interprets differently. Here are some implications of his doings:
The intelligence agencies support the fact that their programs are constitutional and subject to judicial oversight. Internet companies from the USA feared consumer backlash and claimed they needed to cooperate as forced by the law. Intelligence agencies argued that secrecy is of utmost importance in protecting the public from terrorist attacks. Their defense also rested on the assumption that if one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to fear. However, civil liberties groups counter-argued that this surveillance goes beyond what the US constitution entails. These procedures allow building a “pattern of life” — a detailed profile of a particular person and their associated peers. The public concern over the collected data grew at a fast pace. To diminish the panic, the NSA communicated that only a small amount of the world’s internet traffic had been collected. Although their argument might bring some reassurance at face value, it is worth noting that the NSA gathered far more than five terabytes a month. It is up to each of you to assess the amount.
The encryption role is to make data circulating through the Internet unreadable to threats such as hackers and spies. NSA’s surveillance program was, therefore, rendered less useful. This is why they have developed a series of techniques to circumvent web encryption technologies, thus undermining them. NSA’s hacker team named “Tailored Access Operations” (TAO) came in for specific operations when the NSA could not find more detailed information on a target through bulk surveillance programs. Their tactics, before Snowden, were conducted in secrecy. The technologists were alarmed and claimed that, although the NSA was acting in the name of cybersecurity, it made the Internet less secure and more vulnerable to threats such as unlawful surveillance and criminal hacking.
A few months after leaking the documents, Edward Snowden was charged by the US government with three felonies. Two were included under the Espionage Act, which identified the leak of state secrets as treason. In 2013, Snowden was given asylum in Russia, although he had reportedly applied for 21 other countries: all of them had turned him down. In 2015, the former NSA subcontractee stated that he would be willing to go to prison if he could go back on American soil. However, two years later, Russia extended his temporary asylum request until 2020, where he would stay outside prison.
In 2019, Edward Snowden published his autobiography called “Permanent Record,” a powerful testimony of someone who advocates privacy. It is a one-sided perspective, but it is, nonetheless, a provoking one. He tells stories from his upbringing and his family, followed by his work experience. In this context, he admits to having made an oath to serve the Constitution, but it was not an “oath to secrecy,” according to him. Exposing his side of the story, he explained why he decided to choose the journalists he did and his journalism vision: to maintain democracy.
Conclusion – is there any?
Some may argue that Snowden is, indeed, a hero: after all, he sacrificed a comfortable living for the sake of the privacy of others without gaining anything from the leak. Others might say that he put at peril the USA’s diplomatic relationships with other countries or that he delegitimized his own country’s efforts in preventing terrorism. Regardless of one’s view on the matter, it is inevitable that Edward Snowden’s actions put under the spotlight the balance between national security and information privacy, and that, even seven years later, is still difficult to assess.