Edward Snowden, definition: Hero? Traitor? Whistleblower? What has made the name so controversial? And what did the 33-year-old former NSA contractor really do? To find out, let’s take a step outside The Echo Chamber.
Snowden stole over 1.5 million documents while working as a private NSA contractor. He leaked selected files to The Guardian in 2012 and to The Washington Post in 2013, all while seeking asylum in Hong Kong and eventually in Russia. These publications are what would make Snowden the infamous name it is today. But what did the leaks reveal?
The Bush administration, following 9/11, significantly expanded the government’s intelligence gathering and surveillance capabilities with the Patriot Act. Snowden’s leaks pulled back the curtain and helped reveal the true extent of these expansions. The leaked documents shined a light on a massive amount of private governmental activity: the NSA’s mass collection of American phone records; its spying on foreign intelligence agencies, institutions and citizens; its XKeyscore program, which allows the NSA to search through internet users’ activity; its hacking of data centers; its Boundless Informant for searching through the heaps of metadata collected worldwide; and finally, its PRISM program, which is designed to collect private data from major internet services like Gmail and Facebook. But hero? Traitor? Whistleblower? After all this, who is Edward Snowden?
Snowden is a bit of everything. As a hero, Snowden’s leaks posed a minimal threat to national security, with the NSA exaggerating its claim of thwarting over 50 terrorist plots with its snooping tactics. Snowden the hero performed a national service by exposing what many claim to be immoral and unconstitutional breaches of privacy. As a hero, he, and others like him, are considered to be necessary checks on the government — without him, we might still be completely unaware of the NSA’s spying activities. But while heroes are supposed to be celebrated, only one third of U.S. voters believed that Snowden deserved a presidential pardon by August 2015 — why?
As a traitor, Snowden posed an incredible threat to security. He handed over classified information to independent news organizations, giving private companies jurisdiction as to what material was acceptable for public viewing. His actions were reckless and led to The New York Times accidentally revealing the identity of an NSA employee. His acceptance of Russian asylum only further proved his malfeasance — but what other options did he have?
Snowden the whistleblower resides somewhere along the lines of a moral yet illegal activist. As a whistleblower, Snowden chose not to pursue the legal whistleblowing route because protections pertained only to government employees and not contractors. But still, Snowden deemed his moral imperative to be greater than the threat of American exile — his leaks, while somewhat reckless, were a sacrifice. As a whistleblower, his actions were illegal, but his reasons were just. Not a hero, but no villain either.
Without Snowden and others like him, we would be completely unaware as to how our government is spying on us. But was he in the right? Who gets to decide what is leak-worthy? And how much should our government be spying on us and the world around us? These questions are for you to decide. I just hope that you’ve enjoyed some time outside of The Echo Chamber.