Edward Snowden

From SI410
Jump to: navigation, search
Edward Snowden's Twitter Avatar
Birthname Edward Snowden
Date of Birth June 21, 1983
Birth Place Elisabeth City, North Carolina
Nationality American
Occupation Computer Professional
Biography Best known for his leak of confidential NSA documents that revealed the unlawful practices of their security programs

Edward Snowden is an American leaker who in June 2013 released 1.7 million classified files from the National Security Agency (NSA), which he collected while employed as an NSA contractor with the firm Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii.[1] Snowden’s 2013 leak exposed numerous top-secret government data collection programs that included PRISM, XKeyscore, Dishfire, and Bullrun.[2] The reports and documents that Snowden exposed caused widespread outrage from the international community directed at the United States Intelligence Community. On June 21st, 2013 the United States Justice Department formerly charged Snowden with two counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917.[3] Despite these charges, many across the United States and around the world see Snowden as a whistleblower, and not criminal. Snowden currently resides in Moscow, Russia, where he was granted a one-year asylum in 2013. Snowden is actively seeking a permanent asylum elsewhere. Snowden’s actions have various ethical implications including how we treat whistleblowers, the power and secrecy of the federal government, and the role of surveillance in the digital age. Snowden is remarkably known both as a hero to some and as a traitor to others. He has sparked new found attention aimed at securing government orders for mass information and surveillance data collection.

Life Before the Government Employment

Edward Snowden was born on June 21, 1983, in Elisabeth City, North Carolina.[4] He moved at a young age and grew up in the suburbs of Maryland. Coincidentally, he did not grow up far from the NSA’s headquarters at Fort Meade, in the suburbs of Maryland. Snowden did not graduate from college or high school, but was enrolled in the Anne Arundel County public school system until he was forced to miss eight months of school due to a battle with mononucleosis. Snowden then enrolled in community college, and began to explore his passion in technology. At this point in time Snowden began to work for one of his friends that ran his own tech company.[5]

Family Ties to Government Service

Snowden came from a family that was heavily involved in government affairs. In one of his extensive interviews with the magazine WIRED, Snowden says “Everybody in my family has worked for the government in one way or another.” [5] Snowden’s family ties to Government Agencies go all the way back to his maternal Grandfather, who worked in the Pentagon[6], continued through his parents and to his sister, Jessica, who was a lawyer for The Federal Judicial Center in Washington. Snowden found himself attracted to the idea of being able to serve his country. Inspired by the events that took place on 9/11 and the ensuing Iraq War on Terrorism, Snowden volunteered his services to the Army special forces in 2004. He passed aptitude tests, but was discharged after suffering two broken legs during a training exercise. After accepting and excelling at a job with the CIA, Snowden was then transferred to a job with the NSA. He worked for the NSA until he left the country, prior to leaking the Government documents that he had collected.[6]

The Leak

In early June 2013, Edward Snowden leaked government documents that he had collected during his time at the NSA. He gave the documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald, journalist Barton Gellman and filmmaker Laura Poitras. He also gave the documents to four organizations: First Look Media, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Guardian. Snowden had seen first hand what the NSA had been doing with the people's private data, and decided that it was time for action. By releasing these documents, he risked being sent to prison and charged with treason against the government that he had once wanted to serve so badly. In his exclusive interview with WIRED magazine, Snowden explains his motivations for leaking the documents. In an audio recording embedded in the article, he says: "My name is Ed Snowden. I used to work for the government, and now I work for the public. Technology is the greatest equalizer in human history. It allows us to try on new faces, join new communities, engage in new conversations, and discover who we are, and what we want to become. Our generation is facing a time where governments around the world are questioning whether or not individuals can be trusted with the power of technology, if we can be left to our own devices and use it creatively rather than destructively. While I don’t know the answer to that question, what I do know is that governments shouldn’t be the ones to decide, we should. And what I did was not to benefit myself, I didn’t ask for money, I gave this information back to public hands, and the reason I did that was not to gain a label, but to give you back a choice about the country you want to live in" Snowden also insists that though he was the leaker, he does not have copies of the original documents anymore.[5]

Government Programs Revealed in the Leak

PRISM might have been the most talked about government program after Snowden's leak, but the information did not stop there. In the documents, there was also information about other programs such as: Upstream, Bullrun, Xkeyscore, TAO, and Dishfire. [7]

    • Most of the reports from the respective agencies that had copies of the documents Snowden leaked focused on the NSA program PRISM. The report from the Guardian claimed that the PRISM program was using nine leading American internet companies servers to extract personal data such as email, audio chats, video chats, documents, and other forms of data. It was also reported that these companies are allowing the government to do this. Snowden later confirmed that tons of US communications “were being intercepted and stored without a warrant, without any requirement for criminal suspicion, probable cause, or individual designation.” [5] The nine companies that were listed in the secret documents were: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. The program was started during the Bush Administration, under the Protect America Act of 2007.[8] When the initial reports were released, most of the companies that were rumored to be involved unsurprisingly denied to have any knowledge of the program or ever allowing the government unrestricted access to their servers.
  • Bullrun
    • Project Bullrun was the NSA's decryption program. It's main focus was to crack the encryption of network communication technology. Snowden did not have complete access to information on this program, so the only information that is known about it is contained in the slides released. The program is used by the NSA to crack online encryption in order to get access to personal data. The program was designed to weaken online commercial encryption by inserting vulnerabilities that only the NSA knew about. This encryption protected sensitive data such as emails, banking, and medical records, etc.[9][10]
  • Dishfire
    • Dishfire is a program uses text messages and missed call alerts to retrieve data about people. The program is said to have collected almost 200 million text messages a day from places all around the world. [11] The program does not only collect information from previous surveillance targets, but aims to collect as much data as possible about anything and everything that is being transmitted via text message.
  • Tailored Access Operations
    • Tailored Access Operations, or TAO, is a program that hacks into, monitors, and collects data from foreign computer systems. TAO reportedly consists of over one thousand military and civilian computer hackers, intelligence analysts, targeting specialists, computer hardware and software designers, and electrical engineers. These workers work in shifts twenty-four hours a day, looking to find and hack potential security threats to the United States. Tailored Access Operations is centered in Fort Meade. [12][13]
  • Xkeyscore
    • Xkeyscore is a program that allows the NSA to sift through all of the meta data that they have collected using other methods.This program allows the NSA to extract the data that the NSA wants in real time.[14] In an Interview with NDR, Snowden described the scope and functionality of the program. He said that if you had access to the program, you could look at any email, invade an computer, and go into company networks using a persons username. He also says that if you wanted to, you could track any laptop across the world if it were moving from place to place. The NSA isn't the only country that has access to this technology, as Snowden tells us that Germany is capable of using it as well. [15][16]

Ethical Implications

Edward Snowden and his actions have brought about a lot of controversy in terms of Ethics. His leaks started a conversation about what it means when governments use the term "National Security". The information released revealed to us what had previously been unknown about some of the Governments practices. We now know how much information government agencies really can, and do collect about it's citizens on a day to day basis. The other conversation that the actions of Snowden has started is a conversation on the ethics of Whistle Blowing. Though Snowden was exposing illegal programs in the government, If he were to come back to the United States, he would still be tried for three felonies. Two of these are under the Espionage Act, a near century old law that was passed in order to fight dissenters in World War 1.[17][18]

Whistle Blowing

Whistle Blowing is the practice of revealing information about the unethical or illegal practices of any organization, public or private.[19] Snowden's case has become one of the most high profile cases of whistle blowing in the past couple of years. One reason for this is that the case is slightly ironic in the way that when President Obama was running for office, one of his selling points was the fact that he was going to protect whistleblowers when it came to government agencies. He has not exactly practiced what he preached, though, as Snowden has been the seventh case in which someone who blew the whistle on government practices has been charged. President Obama also issued an Executive Order called the Insider Threat Program, a response to massive data leaks.[20] There are some laws in place to protect Whistle Blowers, however. There is a debate that Snowden could have taken a more legal and confidential route to change the practices that are in place, but there is question as to whether or not he would have been able to change anything. Under the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998, Snowden could have taken the information that he had gathered to higher committes in order to try and deal with his urgent concern that way, and would have been protected.[21][22]

Mass Surveillance

The programs that were revealed in Snowden's documents created a lot of concern from not only US citizens but also from others around the world. Surveillance in this new information age is starting to move more towards Mass Monitoring, rather than smaller scale, targeted observations. The ability for the NSA and other government agencies to do this comes with the evolution of Big Data technologies. This only exacerbates the dilemma of how much control and information a government should have over its people.


Privacy in the new Information age is hard to come by, largely because there are so many platforms that keep track of data about individuals. The data is out there, something just needs to go and collect it in order for privacy to be taken away from us. Most of the time, either on social media sites or email services, we think that we know exactly who is seeing what we are putting on these sites. If it is a private message, then we expect only that person to see it. If it is an email, than we expect that only the people on the recipients list to see it. If it is a facebook post, we expect that all of our friends will see it. Now we have learned that these things are not the case. The response to this by the public, and the organizations that house a lot of this data (Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc.) will either be to fold and let the government know what they want to know, or fight for personal encryption methods that keep our data safe from agencies that might have an interest in it. The global conversation about the relationship between Big Data and Surveillance practices has been kickstarted by the release of the Snowden documents.

The Use of Algorithms

The NSA (or any other agency that participates in mass surveillance) has the greatest ethical role in the process. They are the ones that are ordering for the creation and implementation of the Surveillance systems that cause ethical concern. More specifically, the people that design these algorithms and methods for data collection play a great ethical role. It is known that individuals do not have a very large impact on the processes of the surveillance program, and that these decisions, analyzations, and measures are largely done by the algorithms and processes in place. Therefore, if there is any sort of bias, albeit racially, sexually, geographically, etc., then the designer(s) of said algorithms would be the one(s) responsible.[23]The ethic concern then, falls on the designer of the algorithm and the algorithm's code itself. This creates a problem if statistically, one demographic of people participate in any given illegal activity more than others, than the algorithm will learn to correlate the demographic with said illegal activity. Though the algorithm is just trying to do what it is designed to do, it is subjecting a group of people that have done nothing wrong to more surveillance than they usually would have been subjected to. At a certain point the good has to be weighed against the bad. Undoubtedly, the ability to collect massive amounts of data on its citizens makes the country a safer place, but only at the cost of the privacy of individuals.

The Ethics of the System

There also then comes a level to this equation in which the designer is not responsible for the action taken by the system in place. By Luciano Floridi's definition of a moral agent, if something is interactable, adaptable, and autonomous, then it is a moral agent. Therefore, if the system adapts and makes a morally incorrect or correct decision, the moral agent responsible for the decision and the ensuing outcomes of the decision is the system itself, and not the designer. This begs the question on whether or not the agency controlling the design of these systems should even let it get to this point.

Media Productions

Documentary: Citizenfour (2014)

Laura Poitras directed this documentary relating the journey of Edward Snowden in his reveal of the NSA's spying on the American people. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2015 Oscars. The film takes place in a hotel room in Hong Kong, China, Moscow, Russia, and Berlin, Germany. It details Laura Poitras' meeting with Snowden, his leak of some of the NSA files he extracted, as well as his journey from one country to another. Their final meeting takes place in Russia, where Snowden, Poitras, and journalist Glenn Greenwald discuss several U.S. Intelligence programs. The documentary received a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Film Adaptation: Snowden (2016)

Directed by Oliver Stone and set to release in September 2016, most of the movie was filmed in Munich, Germany for fear of what the NSA might do to stop its release or otherwise interfere with production. Additional locations include Washington D.C., Hawaii, and North Carolina in the United States, as well as Hong Kong, China. The film serves to provide audiences with a back story about Snowden, and is a "marvelous complement to 'Citizenfour'," according to Thierry Frémaux, the director of the Cannes Film Festival. The film features several prominent American actors and actresses, such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden and Shailene Woodley as Lindsay Mills, as well as Nicolas Cage. Director Stone and actor Gordon-Levitt both met Snowden in 2015 in Moscow, Russia. Some of the greatest setbacks to the film's production, among others, was the lack of involvement of U.S.-affiliated companies based in Russia, no support from any studios, and financing having to come from Stone and the producer. France and Germany eventually funded the film, although the involved parties did not sign contracts until eight days before production of the film was begun.[24]


  1. Strohhm, C. & Wilber, D. Q. (2014). “Pentagon Says Snowden Took Most U.S. Secrets Ever: Rogers”. Bloomberg News. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-01-09/pentagon-finds-snowden-took-1-7-million-files-rogers-says
  2. Franceschi-Bicchierai, L. (2014). “The 10 Biggest Revelations From Edward Snowden's Leaks”. Mashable. http://mashable.com/2014/06/05/edward-snowden-revelations/#M2wfknXluiqw
  3. Finn, P. & Horwitz, S. (2013). “U.S. charges Snowden with espionage”. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-charges-snowden-with-espionage/2013/06/21/507497d8-dab1-11e2-a016-92547bf094cc_story.html
  4. Spencer Ackerman · (June 10, 2013) · Edward Snowden did enlist for special forces, US army confirms · work · The Guardian · April 21, 2017
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 James Bamford · (August 15, 2014) · Edward Snowden: The Untold Story · work · Wired · April 21, 2017
  6. 6.0 6.1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Snowden
  7. http://www.cips-cepi.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Didier-Bigo_document-Oct6.pdf
  8. https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/us-intelligence-mining-data-from-nine-us-internet-companies-in-broad-secret-program/2013/06/06/3a0c0da8-cebf-11e2-8845-d970ccb04497_story.html
  9. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/05/nsa-gchq-encryption-codes-security
  10. http://www.eweek.com/blogs/security-watch/nsa-bullrun-911-and-why-enterprises-should-walk-before-they-run.html
  11. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/16/nsa-collects-millions-text-messages-daily-untargeted-global-sweep
  12. http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/06/10/inside-the-nsas-ultra-secret-china-hacking-group/
  13. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tailored_Access_Operations
  14. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/David_Lyon10/publication/265965268_Big_Data__Society_Big_Data__Society_On_behalf_of/links/5421d9e60cf238c6ea678102.pdf
  15. http://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/netzwelt/snowden277_page-3.html>
  16. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/27/nsa-online-metadata-collection
  17. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/22/snowden-espionage-charges
  18. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/22/us/snowden-espionage-act.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
  19. https://www.scu.edu/ethics/focus-areas/government-ethics/resources/introduction/whistle-blowing-in-the-public-sector/
  20. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insider_Threat_Program
  21. http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2014/jan/07/glenn-greenwald/greenwald-nsa-leaker-snowden-has-no-whistleblower-/
  22. https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-105publ272/html/PLAW-105publ272.htm
  23. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/David_Lyon10/publication/265965268_Big_Data__Society_Big_Data__Society_On_behalf_of/links/5421d9e60cf238c6ea678102.pdf
  24. http://www.indiewire.com/article/snowden-not-screening-cannes-film-festival-2016-edward-oliver-stone-20160415