It’s been three years since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden fled the United States and revealed classified information on government surveillance programs involving the US, European governments, and telecommunications companies. In the time since he first came to public notice, he has been living in Russia, which granted him asylum, while the US government has been pressing for his arrest and extradition to face charges of espionage. Let’s look back on the events from 2013, what has happened since, and what, if anything, has changed in the world as a result.
Who is Edward Snowden?
Edward Snowden has worked for the CIA, and as a contractor through both Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton for the NSA. A self-proclaimed “computer wizard,” Snowden was hired by the CIA in 2006, and worked in cyber security. In 2009 he joined Dell and was assigned to an NSA contract and eventually joined Booz Allen Hamilton, continuing work for the NSA. Snowden held positions in a number of locations both within and outside the US.
What did he do?
Allegedly, starting in 2012, Snowden began to download copies of confidential/classified documents related to the US government’s electronic surveillance programs housed on NSA systems, of which he was an administrator. It is further alleged that he used social engineering tactics to gain logon credentials from as many as 25 co-workers in order to gain access to even more information. With access to both US and allies’ data, it is estimated that Snowden copied
- 15K files related to Australian intelligence activities
- 58K files related to UK intelligence activities
- 200K or more files related to US intelligence activities, with one DOD estimate stating 1.7M
Including emails, instant messaging records, and documents.
Citing his dissent with government actions, including those he believes are illegal, he quit his job without notice and in May 2013 fled to Honk Kong. He provided several thousand documents to the media in early June 2013 that implicated the US and some allies in both domestic and foreign spying, including on the leaders of other allied nations. Originally planning to fight extradition from Hong Kong, Snowden soon sought asylum in the Russian Embassy to Hong Kong, and was later flown to Russia, where he has been ever since.
He is currently living within Russia under asylum while the US continues to seek his extradition under a deteriorating political relationship with Russia.
Is he a hero or a traitor?
The United States Government files charges against Snowden for both criminal theft and espionage. He faces up to 30 years in prison on those charges alone, the nature of which means any court case would be closed, and which both Snowden and his attorney claim would hinder his ability to mount a defense. Having been charged with espionage, it’s clear the US government at least considers him a traitor. On the other side of the coin, because he identified actions that are allegedly illegal in the United States and that violate both treaty and the spirit of alliances with other nations, several countries have offered Snowden asylum.
The European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the US to drop the charges and also for member countries to block any US extradition attempts, citing “his status as whistle-blower and international human rights defender.” Several polls of US citizens have been conducted in the time since Snowden’s actions became public, with no clear distinction between those who consider him a hero and those who consider him a traitor. Still, internationally, Snowden has received several prominent recognitions, is a paid speaker to various conferences and conventions, and there is a major motion picture about his life and actions coming out this summer.
Has anything gotten better?
That depends upon how you interpret “better.” Certainly, public awareness of government surveillance has increased, which again can be seen from both sides of the coin: as a boon for human rights as well as a hindrance to national defence. Which side of that argument is better I leave to you to decide. Various technology companies have been more prominent in releasing technologies that leverage more and stronger encryption to protect privacy, including cell phones capable of user-to-user encryption, secure email services, and more.
Security researchers have also stated that Islamic terrorists have changed their communications methods as a direct result, while several US companies have alleged that an economic impact has resulted from foreign customers no longer trusting that US products don’t have in-built surveillance and back-doors. Perhaps both most subtle and most significantly, the US passed the “USA Freedom Act” which extended or restored several parts of the Patriot Act, but with several limitations on collecting telecommunications data regarding US citizens. The “Snowden Effect” is a term coined to refer to anything that has come about or changed as a result of Snowden’s revelations.
The major Hollywood motion picture “Snowden” will be released in September. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and written by Oliver Stone, it is likely that this will bring Snowden and all he has done back to the forefront of US political thought.
By then, both parties should have their nominee for President officially chosen, and I expect to hear significant rhetoric from both sides on what should be done regarding Snowden as well as what should be done regarding the actions he revealed. Snowden continues to reside in Russia under political asylum, however that was granted by Russia for an initial period that was then extended to three years and will either need to be extended again, or will end, on 1 August 2017.
Whether he will be extended clemency, offered a pardon in exchange for returning to the US and facing charges, or will continue to live as a fugitive, remains to be seen. One thing I think we can all count on is that Snowden will remain a polarizing figure in the debate between privacy and security, and we have not heard the last about him.