Who is Edward Snowden?
Source: Courage Foundation
Edward Snowden is a former National Security Agency contractor who blew the whistle on transnational mass surveillance by turning over tens of thousands of top-secret documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman. These documents detail mass, indiscriminate spying of digital communications around the world, chiefly by the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ; collusion between governments and giant tech corporations; and the continuing erosion of privacy.
The documents Snowden has already revealed have launched an international debate about privacy, surveillance and the value of whistleblowers.
The US government charged Snowden with theft of government property and two counts of violating the 1917 Espionage Act. Each charge carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
With the US pursuing his extradition and imprisoning other whistleblowers, Snowden sought refuge, travelling to Hong Kong and through Moscow when the US government revoked his passport, barring his departure. Snowden was formally granted asylum in Russia for a period of one year on 1 August 2013. On 7 August 2014, his lawyer announced that Snowden was granted a three-year residency permit in Russia, which allows him to work or travel anywhere within the Russian Federation, and to travel abroad for periods of up to three months.
Why should I care?
Documents revealed by Snowden show that the US intelligence community and its partners – including the UK, Israeli and German spy agencies – and the ‘five eyes’ survellience partners Canada, UK, New Zealand & Australia - are involved in warrantless mass surveillance of citizens domestically and abroad. Numerous documents show that, beyond the espionage performed for counterterrorism purposes, the NSA and its partners carried out political and industrial espionage, including the bugging of EU and UN buildings. To read more about the revelations, see visit this Edward Snowden Revelations page.
Despite the many millions of people that the transnational surveillance systems affect, these have been constructed without the knowledge, authorisation or scrutiny of the elected legislative bodies of the US and its partner countries – much less the public. Snowden felt that this important information should be democratised:
“I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what’s happening and goes, ‘This is something that’s not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.’” (Snowden, June 2013)
What difference did the revelations make?
Investigation: Snowden’s revelations have led to numerous investigations into US surveillance and violations of human rights to privacy and freedom of information. The US, the EU and Brazil all have ongoing investigations into mass surveillance.
Transparency: In a press conference on 9 August 2013, President Obama acknowledged the need for greater transparency regarding US surveillance programmes, asking the intelligence community “to make public as much information about these programs as possible”. A large number of documents have subsequently been released by the US government, including a 2011 FISA Court opinion that ruled some NSA surveillance actions were unconstitutional.
Legislative reform: Nineteen proposals for substantial legislative reform of laws enabling US surveillance are currently pending in the US. Many of the bills include changes to the FISA Court and proposals for more transparent proceedings.
Lawsuits: Formal complaints have been filed against the US and UK governments for breach of privacy laws and rights in France, Germany, the US, the UK and with the European Court of Human Rights. In addition, lawsuits have been filed against the US government by Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Linkedin and Dropbox to allow the companies to disclose more information about their compliance with national security requests.
An informed public debate: Snowden’s revelations have informed the public of the surveillance programmes that have been secretly collecting mass phone and internet data, and this democratisation of knowledge offers the public new choices about their behaviours. Media coverage of surveillance and related topics has grown substantially since June 2013. A number of polls also reflect a shift in US public opinion regarding surveillance and the US government policies’ impact on civil liberties.
Read more about the investigations, transparency measures, legislative reform, complaints and public awareness generated due to Snowden’s revelations on the this Impact page.