On June 21, 2021, Edward Snowden celebrated his 38th birthday in Russia. He’s been in the country for over eight years, having been granted permanent residence in the country in October 2020 . Snowden, an American, has not returned to his native country since leaking millions of classified documents detailing the massive surveillance programs that the United States undertook.
While many have heard Edward Snowden’s name, the programs that he uncovered have seemingly faded in the public consciousness in recent years. Snowden’s reveal of massive global surveillance programs in 2013 was a wake-up call for many Americans, when modern technology and digital communication were truly becoming everyday tools at work and home. His leaked documents highlighted how so many Internet activities are never truly private.
Snowden’s Career Beginnings and Disillusionment
Snowden began his career by joining the Army in May 2004, but was discharged four months later due to broken legs he suffered in a training accident . Following his short time in the Armed Forces, he gained a position as a “security specialist” at an NSA-contracted facility, beginning his time in the intelligence community. He then joined the CIA in 2006 until 2009, years that disillusioned his faith in America’s intelligence community . He described an incident where the CIA purposefully intoxicated a Swiss banker and encouraged him to drive home. When the banker was arrested for drunk driving, the CIA offered him help in exchange for becoming an informant.
Following his resignation from the CIA, Snowden worked as an NSA contractor in Japan with high-level security clearance for three years before moving to Hawaii to join Booz Allen Hamilton, another private contractor. He joined Booz Allen Hamilton with the sole intent of gaining clearance to new classified files. After just a few weeks on the job, Snowden gained access to the classified material, downloaded it on a flash drive, and fled the United States shortly afterward. Finally, he distributed the materials to media outlets he trusted, particularly The Guardian, with the first revelations posted publicly in June 2013.
What Programs Did Snowden Reveal?
The biggest revelation in Snowden’s leaked documents was the existence of a National Security Agency program called PRISM. Under the program, the NSA had direct access to the servers of the biggest tech companies, including Google, Apple and Facebook without their knowledge . Using this direct access, the NSA could collect users’ emails, search history, and file transfers without a court order. Even if you were an American citizen, you could have been subject to this surveillance if your messages ever touched a non-American server.
Snowden explained the horrifying simplicity of the NSA’s programs, stating “I, sitting at my desk, [could] wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email .” This allegation was initially denied by government officials, yet leaked documents showed a program called XKeystore allowed analysts to search enormous databases with just one piece of identifying information .
In addition, Snowden revealed NSA phone-tapping of allied leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu . These revelations caused an uproar among American allies, particularly in Europe. The NSA also monitored various charity organizations and businesses including UNICEF, the United Nations’ agency dedicated to providing aid to children worldwide and Petrobras, Brazil’s largest oil company.
The Legal Justification
All of these programs were justified by Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, a bill signed in 2008 that amended the original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The 2008 amendment rid FISA of its warrant requirement, allowing the NSA to spy on any foreign communications without a court order. In practice, this meant any communications that touched a foreign server were legally allowed to be collected.
Snowden explained “Even if you sent [a message] to someone within the United States, your wholly domestic communication between you and your wife can go to New York to London and back and get caught up in the database .” Because the data had reached a foreign server, no matter how short of a time, the NSA was able to collect, store and potentially analyze that data through Section 702’s legal framework.
A Washington Post investigation found that approximately 90% of account holders in a leaked data cache were ordinary Internet users, with just a tenth of the account holders being NSA targets . These account holders were subject to daily tracking, with NSA analysts having access to intimate conversations unrelated to national security. Put simply, the NSA had access to millions of Americans’ personal data, able to be perused by low-level analysts with little more than an email address.
In addition, government officials’ responses to Snowden’s leaks were swift and severe. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry stated that Snowden’s leaks “told terrorists what they can now do to (avoid) detection .” Various other officials agreed with Kerry’s assessment, stating that suspected terrorists had begun changing their communication tactics following Snowden’s revelations . While the NSA claimed that digital surveillance helped prevent over 50 “potential terrorist events,” then-President Obama stated that other methods could have prevented those attacks .
Data Privacy vs. Protection
Above all, the NSA has been criticized for conducting digital surveillance beyond the scope of national security. While government officials have stated that the surveillance saved countless lives by preventing terrorist attacks, claims that these programs solely stopped potential terror attacks are dubious. The inappropriate collection of everyday Americans’ data, however, is undeniable. Millions of Americans’ emails, video calls and search histories were readily available to low-level NSA analysts. While Edward Snowden remains a highly controversial figure today, his revelations of mass global surveillance undoubtedly increased Americans’ concern for data privacy. And while some still view Snowden as a criminal or traitor, some see him as a brave whistleblower who revealed just how exposed our data, and our lives, can be.
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