Remember what they said in school? “Nobody likes a tattletale.” This old adage is especially true for the U.S. government who depends on secrecy to operate. Things just work a whole lot better when everyone knows exactly what they should, and no one asks any difficult questions. The government claims to protect its citizens—and sometimes it actually does—but the truth is, its protective instincts tend to revolve around its own vast network of secrecy. Freedom is acceptable only insofar as it remains agreeable to the powers that be, plain and simple. And that’s why the case of Edward Snowden is so crazy, so unfathomable, and so frustrating—because it reveals the true nature of freedom in the U.S. and the highly abused definition of national security.
When people hear the name “Snowden,” they have one of two thoughts—hero or villain. Or perhaps they have never really bothered to form an opinion at all. If it were up the U.S., he would be placed squarely in the bad guy category, as he was responsible for one of the most astonishing whistleblower moments in national history. As a former National Security Agency (NSA) subcontractor, Snowden made headlines in 2013 when he leaked sensitive information about the covert surveillance activities of the NSA. During his time at the agency, Snowden collected top-secret documents regarding domestic surveillance practices for one reason—they were disturbing.
It was clear the U.S. government was sharing almost nothing about their security practices with the larger population. As someone with an intimate, behind-the-scenes perspective, he felt it was his obligation to share what he knew with the world. And by poking the sleeping giant of the U.S., he essentially gave up his freedom, his nationality, and his safety. Because nobody—nobody—messes with the NSA and gets away with it.
What does “national security” really mean?
Before we explore the behavior of Edward Snowden and how we feel about it, it’s worth considering what the term “national security” really amounts to. According to the NSA, it means “Defending our nation. Securing the future.” Sounds comforting, but it doesn’t really offer much in the way of real understanding—and man, is it open to interpretation. Upon further inspection of their mission, it becomes clear much of this pursuit happens through understanding the threat; securing networks and data; supporting the military; and leading the charge in research. Funny, there doesn’t seem to be any mention of widespread surveillance of the population.
If we close our eyes and try to envision “national security,” we likely conjure up images of distorted news tags and innuendos from the great unknown. Anyone who appreciates the horror genre knows the most frightening thing is that which we cannot imagine. National security often feels like an intentionally vague ideal built on the back of our greatest national fears. And that is where the NSA finds it greatest strength—in the belief that we are scared enough to value whatever they say beyond all else. We must trust them to protect us from the boogeyman, the hackers in black hoodies, the brown-skinned terrorist seeking asylum on our shores, the poised warheads in North Korea, Russian spies. The list goes on and on.
We must accept that, unlike us, our government recognizes the genuine threats of the modern world and is working hard to protect us from things we are not qualified to understand. It’s above our pay grade, it’s outside our jurisdiction—we don’t have the proper clearance. And so, we must trust. Trust in their ideas, trust in their abilities, trust in their methods. Because at the end of the day, we really don’t know anything about our national security or what looms in the darkness, waiting to strike. We are like children, being led down a road we can barely see, as we hold fast to the great hand above us, hoping only for guidance and protection.
What did Snowden discover?
But the fact is we are not children. We are adults with the ability to think for ourselves and the right to understand what we face. So after years of working in the IT department of both the NSA and the CIA, as well as a tech consulting firm, Snowden began to see the hypocrisy behind the notion of national security and how the NSA was using daily surveillance of American citizens to mine for information. The great magnifying glass tasked with scouring the globe for threats was now being placed directly over the unsuspecting population. And rather than turn a blind and accepting eye (like all other agency workers), Snowden began to copy top-secret documents—eventually downloading over 1.5 million files—and to build a dossier on these invasive practices.
Maybe he was just a liberally minded, internet-freedom-loving millennial; or maybe he had contempt for the government—or maybe it was a bit of both. Either way, his decision to go public with his knowledge would essentially bring one of the most powerful nations in the world to its knees, forcing accountability on a bulletproof entity. Snowden’s actions would also force open the eyes of a complacent nation who had become far too comfortable with the prescribed definition of freedom.
Once Snowden realized what he had in his possession, he acted quickly. He had compiled a large cache of revealing documents and needed to escape—fast. After asking his supervisor at the NSA for a medical leave of absence, Snowden flew to Hong Kong that same year in 2013 to meet with a clandestine network of reporters and documentarians. He did not just hand over the documents—he made a spectacle of them. And boy, were they spectacular.
How bad was the NSA?
When the U.K. publication The Guardian released the first secret document on June 5th, the world discovered the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court had implemented an order requiring Verizon to release American customer information to the NSA on an “ongoing, daily basis.” The next day, The Washington Post released leaked information on an NSA program known as PRISM, which allowed real-time information to be electronically collected through backdoors features in companies like Facebook and Google. Throughout the following year, the floodgates opened and information poured out, all of it illuminating the hidden corners of national security, some darker and more disturbing than others. Here are some highlights on the NSA’s bad behavior:
- Developed a strategy to acquire data from “anyone, anytime, anywhere” and expand its already sweeping legal powers.
- Infected more than 50,000 computer networks worldwide with malware designed to steal sensitive information.
- Gathered evidence of visits to pornographic websites as part of a plan to discredit Muslim jihadists.
- Ordered intelligence officials to draw up a list of overseas targets who were ripe for cyberattack.
- Siphoned billions of foreign cellphone locations records into its database.
- Located new targets for hacking and surveillance by piggybacking off Google’s internet cookies.
- Spent almost $80 million on research programs to develop a quantum computer with the ability to crack most types of encryption.
- Implemented the Boundless Informant program which gave the agency a real-time ability to assess intelligence coverage using a “heat map,” or a visual summary of data.
- Colluded with tech companies to collect data and generate intelligence reports on American citizens.
- Hacked computers in Hong Kong and mainland China, few of which were military systems.
- Mapped the social connections of American citizens with sophisticated graphs, all by using private metadata augmented with information from public and commercial sources.
- Paid British intelligence roughly $155 million to tap fiber-optic cables for the purpose of collecting and storing international email messages, Facebook posts, browser histories, and phone calls. This would lead to seven of the world’s leading telecommunication companies handing over unlimited access to their network of undersea cables.
- Collected more than 250 million email contact lists from services such as Yahoo and Gmail.
- Tapped the personal cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
- Bugged the offices of the European Union in New York, Washington, and Brussels.
- Spied on at least 38 foreign embassies and missions, using a variety of digital surveillance methods.
- Created a secret computer system called “XKeyscore,” which allowed them to search for and analyze global internet data, which it collected to search through enormous email databases, chatrooms, and browsing histories of just about anyone. Germany also contributed data to this program.
- Provided surveillance to American diplomats so they could gain the upper hand in negotiations at the UN Summit.
- Broke privacy rules several thousand times a year.
- Established a top-secret “black budget”of $52.6 billion, complete with 16 spying agencies, which was paid yearly to U.S. companies for access to their networks.
- Carried out 231 unprovoked cyberattacks in 2011.
- Shares raw intelligence data pertaining to American citizens with Israel in an information-sharing agreement.
- Monitors banks and credit institutions to create a comprehensive database that can track the global flow of money.
- Covertly spied on France, Italy, Germany, China, Denmark, India, Indonesia, Norway, Spain, and others, including its citizens, companies, phone calls, and government officials.
Why did Snowden do it?
At this point, the list begins to blur, as it crosses to many boundaries and unforeseen facets of personal privacy, it’s hard to know what is most upsetting. Once the documents became available, Snowden was on the run, American citizens had turned an accusing eye on their government, and the NSA was vacillating somewhere between shock and fury. So, why did Snowden do it? Why did he purposefully violate the U.S. Espionage Act and turn the country on its proverbial head? According to his own words, the main reason was to express his grave concern about the state of freedom and privacy in this country. “At this point in history, the greatest danger to our freedom and way of life comes from the reasonable fear of omniscient State powers kept in check by nothing more than policy documents… It is not that I do not value intelligence, but that I oppose omniscient, automatic, and mass surveillance. That seems to me a greater threat to the institutions of free society than missed intelligence reports, and unworthy of the cost.”
Given the state of technology today, people don’t realize how easy it is for the government to spy on absolutely anyone—even you. Snowden’s documents are a startling reminder of just how much we, as citizens, don’t really know about the country we live in and how it deceives and monitors us on a daily basis. Since when do American people not have the right to openly debate the mandates of their own nation? Since when are U.S. government officials the only ones with the power and privilege to make these decisions? Since when did we lose our position as a democratic republic? Since when did we lose the choice to decide what kind of world we want to live in? For most people, these changes were made without our participation or our consent.
Is Snowden a criminal?
According to the laws of the land, yes—he is a criminal. He broke the government’s trust and illegally shared sensitive documents. But given the level of clarity he gifted the American people, he could also be considered a hero. We all have the choice to live in relative freedom, wake up and work each day, and come home to a simple life of dinner and nightly TV. Take your paycheck and enjoy the remaining liberties you have left. But if you are like Snowden, who felt the world deserved to hear the truth, you know things are only going to get worse with each passing generation if oppressive government monitoring and tampering does not lessen. In good conscience, how can we allow the government to destroy our privacy, internet freedom, and basic liberties—at home and abroad?
When looking at Snowden’s case, the essential question then becomes, do you want to live in a totalitarian state? An oligarchy of megalomaniacs? Because these leaked documents prove one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt. You are being watched. Even if you are doing nothing wrong, your movements are being recorded. If you somehow fall under suspicion through one unknowing connection, the government can use their advanced system to go back in time, scrutinize every decisions you’ve ever made, review your entire life history, evaluate every friend you have, and—if they so choose—paint you in the context of a wrongdoer. How then, is anyone really safe?
Most importantly, Snowden’s documents have given us an opportunity to take back the privacy and freedom we didn’t even know we lost. The divide in the road has been made clear, and it’s up to us to decide whether we will willingly take the government’s hand and follow them down the grim and treacherous road of blindness. Or perhaps we will realize we are strong enough, smart enough, and brave enough to find our own way, on our own terms.