Edward Joseph Snowden is an American computer professional, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, and former contractor for the US Government who copied classified information from the United States National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 without prior authorization. The information revealed numerous global surveillance programs, many run by the NSA and Five Eyes with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments. Snowden’s revelations were the start of a series of global surveillance disclosures.
Born in North Carolina in 1983, Edward Snowden later worked for the National Security Agency through subcontractor Booz Allen in the organization’s Oahu office. During his time there, Snowden collected top-secret documents regarding NSA domestic surveillance practices that he found disturbing. After Snowden fled to Hong Kong, China and met withGuardian journalists, newspapers began printing the documents that he had leaked, many of them detailing the monitoring of American citizens. The U.S. has charged Snowden with violations of the Espionage Act while many groups call him a hero. Snowden has found asylum in Russia and continues to speak about his work. A documentary on his story, Citzenfour, won an Oscar in 2015, with a 2016 biopic also in the pipeline.
Background and Early Years
Edward Snowden was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on June 21, 1983. His mother works for the federal court in Baltimore (the family moved to Maryland during Snowden’s youth) as chief deputy clerk for administration and information technology. Snowden’s father, a former Coast Guard officer, later relocated to Pennsylvania and remarried.
Snowden dropped out of high school and studied computers at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland (from 1999 to 2001, and again from 2004 to 2005). Between his stints at community college, Snowden spent four months (May to September 2004) in the Army Reserves in special-forces training. He did not complete training according to Army sources, and he was discharged after he broke his legs in an accident.
Snowden eventually landed a job as a security guard at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language. The institution had ties to the National Security Agency, and, by 2006, Snowden had parlayed his way into an information-technology job at the Central Intelligence Agency. In 2009, after being suspected of trying to break into classified files, he left to work for private contractors, among them Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton, a tech consulting firm. With Dell, he was shipped off to Japan to work as a subcontractor in an NSA office before being transferred to an office in Hawaii. After a short while he moved from Dell to Booz Allen, another NSA subcontractor, and remained with the company for only three months.
Blowing the Whistle
During his years of IT work, Snowden had noticed how far reaching the NSA’s reach was in terms of everyday surveillance. While with Booz Allen, Snowden began copying top-secret NSA documents, building a dossier on practices that he found invasive and disturbing. The documents contained vast information on the NSA’s domestic surveillance practices.
After he had compiled a large store of documents, Snowden told his NSA supervisor that he needed a leave of absence for medical reasons, stating he had been diagnosed with epilepsy. On May 20, 2013, Snowden took a flight to Hong Kong, China, where he remained as he orchestrated a clandestine meeting with journalists from the U.K. publication The Guardian as well as filmmaker Laura Poitras. Then on June 5, The Guardian released secret documents obtained from Snowden. In said documents the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court implemented an order that required Verizon to release information to the NSA on an “ongoing, daily basis” culled from its American customers’ phone activities.
The U.S. government soon responded to Snowden’s disclosures legally. On June 14, 2013, federal prosecutors charged Snowden with “theft of government Property,” “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.” The last two charges fall under the Espionage Act. (Before President Barack Obama took office, the act had only been used for prosecutorial purposes three times since 1917. Since President Obama took office, the act had been invoked seven times as of June 2013.)
Snowden remained in hiding for slightly more than a month. He initially planned to relocate to Ecuador for asylum, but, upon making a stopover, he became stranded in a Russian airport for a month when his passport was annulled by the American government. The Russian government denied U.S. requests to extradite Snowden. While some decried him as a traitor, others supported his cause, and more than 100,000 people signed an online petition asking President Obama to pardon Snowden by late June.
The following month, Snowden made headlines again when it was announced that he had been offered asylum in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia. Snowden soon made up his mind, expressing an interest in staying in Russia. One of his lawyers, Anatoly Kucherena, stated that Snowden would seek temporary asylum in Russia and possibly apply for citizenship later. Snowden thanked Russia for giving him asylum and said that “in the end the law is winning.”
That October, Snowden stated that he no longer possessed any of the NSA files that he leaked to press. He gave the materials to the journalists he met with in Hong Kong, but he didn’t keep copies for himself. Snowden explained that “it wouldn’t serve the public interest” for him to have brought the files to Russia, according to The New York Times. Around this time, Snowden’s father, Lon, visited his son in Moscow and continued to publicly express support.
Living in Exile
In November 2013, Snowden’s request to the U.S. government for clemency was rejected. The fallout from his disclosures continued to unfold over the next few months, including a legal battle over the collection of phone data by the NSA. President Obama sought to calm fears over government spying in January 2014, ordering U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to review the country’s surveillance programs.
Still in exile, Snowden remained a polarizing figure. He made an appearance at the popular South by Southwest festival via teleconference in March 2014. Around this time, the U.S. military revealed that the information Snowden leaked may have caused billions of dollars in damage to its security structures.
In May 2014, Snowden gave a revealing interview with NBC News. He told Brian Williams that he was a trained spy who worked undercover as an operative for the CIA and NSA, an assertion denied by National Security Adviser Susan Rice in a CNN interview. Snowden explained that he viewed himself as a patriot, believing his actions had beneficial results. He stated that his leaking of information led to “a robust public debate” and “new protections in the United States and abroad for our rights to make sure they’re no longer violated.” He also expressed an interest in returning home to America.
That same year, Snowden was featured in Poitras’s highly acclaimed documentary Citizenfour. The director had recorded her meetings with Snowden and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. The film went on to win an Academy Award in 2015. Poitras and the winning team was joined onstage by Snowden’s girlfriend Mills, with the documentarian saying during her acceptance speech, “When the decisions that rule us are taken in secret, we lose the power to control and govern ourselves.”
Since its release, Snowden has remained outspoken on government surveillance. He appeared with Poitras and Greenwald via video-conference in February 2015. Earlier that month, Snowden spoke with students at Upper Canada College via video-conference. He told them that “the problem with mass surveillance is when you collect everything, you understand nothing.” He also stated that government spying “fundamentally changes the balance of power between the citizen and the state.”
On September 29, 2015, Snowden joined the social media platform Twitter, tweeting “Can you hear me now?” He had almost two million followers in a little over 24 hours. Just a few days later, a BBC interview was aired in which Snowden stated he’d be willing to return to the U.S. and serve prison time if a plea deal could be reached. An Oliver Stone biopic about Snowden has also been in the works, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role. The film is slated for a May 2016 release.