Edward Snowden is a great man, by many standards. Not necessarily great in the sense that he is a terrific person, but rather in the sense that his actions have had a powerful impact on the national discourse of the United States, and even foreign policy relations with other nations.
Snowden, in his role as an NSA contractor hired by Booze Hamilton, copied thousands of documents relating to the surveillance activities of the NSA and related intelligence agencies, activities that included essentially ubiquitous monitoring of electronic communications under the guise of national security. There have been revelations of phone record and email interception, data mining of cloud-based systems, and even monitoring of foreign Heads of State, including German Prime Minister Angela Merkel.
The whirlwind of classified releases and Snowden’s escape to Hong Kong and ultimately Russia are like plot elements straight out of a Hollywood spy movie. In collaboration with Guardian reporter Glen Greenwald, Snowden has painted a picture of an intelligence apparatus that is totally out of control, operating far beyond the limits formerly believed to constrain surveillance on private citizens, especially in regards to domestic spying.
Thanks to the actions of Snowden and Greenwald, the public has been made privy to orders for Verizon to release all telephone records of its customers for periods of several months at a time. There are details of a surveillance program known as PRISM, which allows government access to the secured servers of the biggest players in the high-tech arena. From Google and Apple to Microsoft, Facebook and others, the PRISM program has burrowed its tentacles into their server farms and data clouds, although most of the companies have denied active collaboration with the government intrusion.
Another NSA program known as Boundless Informant is reported to have collected billions of datapoints on American citizens in February of 2013 alone. This is not small potatoes here. The scope of the surveillance and the quantity of data being seized is positively enormous.
The NSA is not the only target of the leaks that Snowden provided. The UK-based intelligence agency known as the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), basically their equivalent to the NSA, has been revealed to have tapped the communications of delegates to the London G20 summit in 2009. This has touched off a flurry of criticism of the European intelligence service.
The GCHQ has also been shown to have the capability to access transatlantic communications cables and store the massive amounts of data produced by the spying for weeks. Other documents show similar spying by the UK agency on communications within and originating from China.
Opinions of Snowden and his actions run the full gamut from praising him as a hero for revealing the massive surveillance activity to labeling him a traitor. Critics have claimed that he has undermined American national security and jeopardized foreign relations with the various nations we have been spying on.
In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Snowden admitted to taking the contracting position with Booze Hamilton specifically to gain access to the surveillance related information. American officials have expressed outrage at Hong Kong for allowing the whistle blowing fugitive to leave the country unmolested.
Most recently, the Guardian has released a statement by Snowden claiming the existence of a trove of files he refers to as his Doomsday Cache, thousands of encrypted documents hidden away somewhere in a data-cloud system. Snowden has claimed that several unnamed individuals have been provided with passwords to access the heavily protected data, and that if anything happens to him, the data will be automatically released.
Snowden has been charged in the United States under the Espionage Act, and is wanted by UK officials as well. He is currently believed to be living in Russia as a political refugee under the protection of the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin.
To the extent that the word great means “above average in impact or capacity”, there is little argument that Snowden is a great man. Many feel that he is also an international criminal. Perhaps both of these are true. Only time will tell, as more of the documents are released and the full picture of the surveillance being conducted becomes evident. One thing is certain, the information released by Snowden has forever changed the intelligence game. Similarly to the mythical Pandora’s Box, once opened, these revelations can never again be hidden away from sight. The world, and our knowledge of it, will never be the same.
by Mark Clarke