Edward Snowden is a former intelligence community officer and whistleblower. The documents he revealed provided a vital public window into the NSA and its international partner’s secret mass surveillance programs and capabilities. These revelations generated attention around the world on privacy intrusions and digital security. In 2014 he received the Right Livelihood Award and in 2016 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Edward Snowden was born in 1983 in North Carolina and grew up around computers and the Internet. At the age of nine, Snowden and his family moved to Maryland near Fort Meade, then and now the headquarters of the National Security Agency (NSA). In his new school, he remained an outsider and holed up more and more behind the computer, which became his most loyal companion.
After 9/11, Snowden signed up for the military and then went to the secret service. Snowden was an idealist. He believed that communication technology could make the world a better place. However, he soon learned that he should not serve the system, but only work for it.
In his first contract labor position, Snowden worked unofficially for the CIA. In 2007 he was transferred to Geneva. What Snowden didn’t know at the time was that the CIA department at the Geneva embassy was instrumental in developing a global surveillance network that would turn Snowden’s life upside down a few years later.
Snowden at the NSA
In 2009, Snowden decided to accept an NSA job offer in Japan. Officially a Dell contractor, he was now responsible for the NSA’s communications infrastructure throughout the Pacific. By chance, Snowden found out that the NSA monitors all private Internet communications of all Americans and stores it forever.
He got his hands on a document that even exceeded his worst suspicions: The top-secret “Stellar Wind” project authorized the NSA to collect and permanently store all private Internet communications of all Americans without a court order. What was described in the document was criminal and unconstitutional. Besides the NSA also collected the metadata (information about when, where, and from which device someone was communicating with someone else).
A break due to illness forced Snowden to decide to go to Hawaii with his partner Lindsay, where he worked on less physically demanding projects at Hawaii´s NSA branch, but which allowed him to find out how the American system of mass surveillance works in detail.
Snowden smuggled the information out of the NSA building and covered his tracks.
Over the years, Snowden had learned not only how the intelligence services worked, but also how not to get caught by them. He tapped other people’s internet connections to communicate with journalists. Under the pretext of compatibility checks, he copied the disclosure documents to decommissioned desktop computers that were not connected to the cloud. Then he transferred selected documents to microSD cards, hid them under the colored stickers on a Rubik’s cube, and smuggled them out of the building.
Snowden arrived in Hong Kong on May 20, 2013. He had chosen the city as the most harmless place possible for a meeting with the journalists, but for some inexplicable reason, they were a long time coming, after which he holed up in his room for ten days. At the beginning of June, the two journalists finally arrived and got to work. Snowden knew he could not expect mercy from his government. But he hoped that his fellow citizens would demand justice for him.
When the US applied for his extradition, the Hong Kong government ordered him to leave the city. Snowden planned to apply for asylum in Ecuador but had to fly via Moscow on the way to avoid US airspace. His trip ended in Moscow. The US State Department had invalidated his passport. He stayed 40 days and nights in Moscow airport and asked 27 states for political asylum – in vain: no country was ready to stand up to the United States. In the end, he stayed in Moscow against his will. In front of the Russian secret service, he stood empty-handed because he had destroyed his key to all secret documents.
Lindsay later moved to live with him in Moscow and the two married.
With his revelations, Snowden has shown the world how watchable each of us can be. Only those who recognize the errors in the system can solve them, and he has shown them to us. He has encouraged governments, but also many people, to deal more consciously with the issue of surveillance and to take action against it.