Just two weeks ago, world-renowned whistleblower Edward Snowden applied for a Russian citizenship, where he has been residing ever since leaking thousands of top-secret documents to three top journalists in 2013.
At the time, Snowden had been working as an IT consultant under contract with the National Security Agency. His work required a high-level security clearance, which gave him access to some of the nation’s most classified information. For about four years, Snowden recognized the extent of the NSA’s surveillance of the average American, and thus began to collect and record the practices he considered especially invasive. Snowden already had a history with vigilantism, once even caught attempting to break into secured files while working under the Center Intelligence Agency in 2006. Once he had compiled a significant amount of information, Snowden was granted a medical leave of absence, with the excuse that he had been diagnosed with epilepsy. May 20, 2013, Snowden traveled to Hong Kong, where he then divulged the thousands of files concerning domestic and international surveillance by the NSA to two journalists: Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman, and filmmaker Laura Poitras. June 5, after sifting through the files for the most relevant information to the American public, The Guardian released its initial leak of the scandal that concerned every citizen in the age of the internet. Such information included an order that Verizon provide information on an “ongoing, daily basis” of their customers’ actions, and the NSA’s program PRISM that allowed real-time collection of data from Google, Apple, Facebook, and more.
“I’m willing to sacrifice [my former life] because I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building,” said Snowden to his chosen confidantes.
In the days following, the leak sparked a global debate concerning surveillance and privacy from the government. Several studies run by the Pew Research Center indicate a marked change in how Americans considered their individual privacy, and a split between how they viewed the situation. Among the 87% who had heard of these surveillance programs, 25% declared they had changed the way they use technology “a great deal” or “somewhat.” About half of Americans said the information served public interest, while the other half affirmed it harmed public interest. Overall, the mass-leak created a feeling of mild paranoia, and the majority of people considered the possibility that their conversations and technology were never fully their own.
The American government struck back legally, finding Snowden guilty on the count of violating the Espionage Act – marking him as a traitor. Snowden, who fled Hong Kong after the leak, had initially planned to seek asylum in Ecuador. It was in Russia, however, that there came an issue. Upon his arrival at the Moscow airport, he was detained by Russian officials, who claimed they would offer him assistance in exchange for any of the secrets he discovered. Snowden refused, declaring later: “I destroyed my access to the archive. … I had no material with me before I left Hong Kong, because I knew I was going to have to go through this complex multi-jurisdictional route.” Despite attempting to find asylum in 27 other countries, Snowden settled into Russia, and has remained there ever since. Now, with a wife and son, Snowden merely seeks to create a life with his family.
What still remains to be seen, though, is the effect another reveal of this sort of privacy breach could have on the American people. Granted, by now we have almost grown accustomed to the notion of government surveillance, only exacerbated by Snowden’s revelation. But if another situation similar to this were to arise, could it spark a wave of rebellion? If we discovered a further extent of transgression, could we find ourselves in a new kind of technological revolution? The likelihood seems low, but even so – we have equipped ourselves with the ultimate spyware.