Edward Snowden

Whistleblowing NSA

Image source: Laura Poitras / Praxis Films
Screenshot of the film Prism by Praxis Films

Image license: CC BY 3.0

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Edward Joseph Snowden (born June 21, 1983) is an American whistleblower who copied and leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 when he was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee and subcontractor. His disclosures revealed numerous global surveillance programs, many run by the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments, and prompted a cultural discussion about national security and individual privacy.
In 2013, Snowden was hired by an NSA contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, after previous employment with Dell and the CIA. Snowden says he gradually became disillusioned with the programs with which he was involved and that he tried to raise his ethical concerns through internal channels but was ignored. On May 20, 2013, Snowden flew to Hong Kong after leaving his job at an NSA facility in Hawaii, and in early June he revealed thousands of classified NSA documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Barton Gellman, and Ewen MacAskill. Snowden came to international attention after stories based on the material appeared in The Guardian and The Washington Post. Further disclosures were made by other publications including Der Spiegel and The New York Times.
On June 21, 2013, the United States Department of Justice unsealed charges against Snowden of two counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and theft of government property, following which the Department of State revoked his passport. Two days later, he flew into Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, where Russian authorities observed that his U.S. passport had been cancelled, and he was restricted to the airport terminal for over one month. Russia later granted Snowden the right of asylum with an initial visa for residence for one year, and repeated extensions have permitted him to stay at least until 2020.
The exact size and scope of Snowden’s disclosure is unknown; the unclassified portion of a September 15, 2016 United States House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence report estimated the number of downloaded documents at 1.5 million. Glenn Greenwald stated that Snowden’s disclosures contained sensitive NSA blueprints detailing how the NSA operates, and which would allow someone who read them to evade NSA surveillance.On September 17, 2019, his memoir Permanent Record was published. On the first day of publication, the United States Department of Justice filed a two-count civil lawsuit against Snowden over publication of his memoir, alleging he had breached nondisclosure agreements signed with the U.S. federal government. The United States prevailed on December 17, 2019, in a summary judgement on both counts. Former Guardian national security reporter Ewen MacAskill called the civil lawsuit a “huge mistake”, and said that the “UK ban of Spycatcher 30 years ago created huge demand”. The memoir was listed as no. 1 on Amazon’s bestseller list the day it was released.
A subject of controversy, Snowden has been variously called a hero, a whistleblower, a dissident, a traitor, and a patriot. U.S. officials condemned his actions as having done “grave damage” to the U.S. intelligence capabilities. Snowden has defended his leaks as an effort “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” He considers himself a “whistleblower” as opposed to a “leaker”, saying in 2019, “a leaker only distributes information for personal gain”. His disclosures have fueled debates over mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the balance between national security and information privacy.
In early 2016, Snowden became the president of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization that states its purpose is to protect journalists from hacking and government surveillance.In 2017, Snowden married Lindsay Mills. In April 2020, Snowden requested a three-year extension of his Russian residency permit. On September 2, 2020, a US federal court ruled that the US intelligence’s mass surveillance program, exposed by Edward Snowden, was illegal and possibly unconstitutional. They also cited that the US intelligence leaders, who publicly defended it, were not telling the truth.


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