- News & Media
... for his courage and skill in revealing the unprecedented extent of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and constitutional rights.
Edward Snowden is an American technologist, and former CIA officer and NSA contractor. When he discovered classified evidence the U.S. government was, contrary to its public statements, secretly operating a global system of mass surveillance in violation of human rights standards and international law, he revealed it to the press, an act for which his home country is pursuing him on criminal charges. His actions have precipitated an intense global debate on privacy and surveillance. They have also led to historic rulings on privacy and to changes in policies and technologies. In the words of RLA Laureate Daniel Ellsberg, “Snowden has done more for our Constitution in terms of the Fourth and First Amendment than anyone else I know.”
Edward Snowden was born on 21 June 1983, and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2004, volunteering to serve in the Special Forces. Some months into his training, he was separated from the Army due to an injury. In 2005, he began working for the CIA as a computer systems engineer and was posted in 2007 to the CIA station in Geneva, where he became concerned by some of the agency’s unlawful practices. After leaving the CIA, he worked for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), Dell and finally with contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.
When his concerns grew that the mass surveillance practices that he witnessed violated rights and would, if left unchecked, pose an existential threat to democracy, he first tried to raise concerns within the system, but without an impact. He then worked at great risk within the intelligence agency to directly gather classified evidence revealing unlawful and disproportionate surveillance activities by the U.S. and other governments.
Exposing mass surveillance
In May 2013, months after making contact with American journalists at The Guardian and Washington Post, Snowden met with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill and filmmaker Laura Poitras in Hong Kong. Days later, the first articles based on his leaked documents were published. Snowden chose to identify himself as the source of the leaks, explaining his motivation and the significance of the documents to the public.
Snowden evaluated documents carefully to ensure their release would be in the public interest, and would not needlessly reveal legitimate operations. Glenn Greenwald has stated that “it’s 1,000 percent clear that he read and very carefully processed every document that he gave us by virtue of his incredibly elaborate electronic filing system.”
Publications based on the files have revealed that the NSA and GCHQ work closely with Internet service providers and telecom companies to amass enormous quantities of data on the general public. The files show the scope of the vast surveillance being conducted by the NSA, which collects hundreds of millions of email address books, hundreds of billions of cellphone location records and trillions of domestic call records, most of which belong to ordinary people suspected of no wrongdoing. The revelations showed that the U.S. government was spying to a far greater extent than it claimed and that National Intelligence Director James Clapper’s sworn testimony in Congress that the NSA did not wittingly collect the communications of millions of American citizens was knowingly false: a serious crime under American law.
For revealing secret information to the public, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Snowden with two counts of violating the Espionage Act and theft of government property, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. When Snowden declared an intention to ask the world for justice and departed Hong Kong to seek political asylum, the U.S. Department of State revoked his passport, leaving him trapped in a Russian airport, unable to travel internationally nor exit the airport. He applied for asylum in 12 European countries, but they failed to respond, claiming a grant of asylum might damage relations with the government of the United States.
He has expressed a desire to seek permanent asylum in Latin America, where a number of countries have offered it, but the U.S. has sought to block his travel. On July 1st 2013, France, Italy and Spain closed their airspace to the diplomatic aircraft of Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, in violation of international law, claiming that Snowden was on board, forcing an emergency landing. When it was discovered that he was not amongst the passengers, the plane was allowed to travel onward. France and Spain issued apologies. Snowden has been adamant that he gave no information to either the Russian or Chinese governments, and after sharing his documents with The Guardian and other journalists, he destroyed his copies to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. He refutes the criticism that he broke a civil secrecy agreement, pointing out that intelligence officers are required to take an oath to defend the U.S. constitution, and when he witnessed its violation “on a massive scale”, his loyalty lay with his country, not an agency.
On January 1, 2014, the editorial board of The New York Times demanded that the U.S. Government grant Snowden clemency or “at least a substantially reduced punishment”, arguing that while he may have broken the law, he had “done his country a great service” by bringing the abuses of the NSA to light. “When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law,” they wrote, “that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government.”
RLA Laureate Daniel Ellsberg says that Snowden “has revealed these earth-shattering revelations at a great personal risk.” Ellsberg counters the argument that Snowden should have returned to the United States and face trial: “Chelsea Manning has not been able to give an interview since her arrest. When Hillary Clinton and John Kerry say that Snowden should come back to America and make his case to the American people, it’s absurd. He would have been in an isolation cell straightaway, and not able to work with journalists. (…) He would not have been able to make his case in a court. He wouldn’t be able to tell a Jury why he did what he did. (…) There is absolutely no chance Snowden would have been able to get a fair trial.”
Snowden’s revelations have caused a worldwide re-evaluation of the meaning of privacy and the boundaries of rights. In December 2013, U.S. Federal Judge Richard J. Leon ruled that bulk collection of American telephone metadata likely violates the Constitution of the United States stating that “Surely, such a program infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.” In April 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union declared the Data Retention Directive of 2006 invalid, because it entailed serious interference with the rights to privacy and personal data protection of individuals guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
Laws are now being proposed in many countries to restrain mass surveillance, users are more aware of risks, and some telecom companies are implementing new technologies or routines to better protect their customers’ data. Even the President of the U.S. concluded the debate initiated by Snowden had “made us stronger”.
Snowden is the Rector of the University of Glasgow, and serves on the Freedom of the Press Foundation board of directors. He was voted as The Guardian's person of the year 2013 and was placed first in Foreign Policy’s 2013 list of leading Global Thinkers due to the impact of his revelations. He was TIME's runner up to Person of the Year 2013, behind Pope Francis. He has also won the German “Whistleblower Prize” and the Sam Adams Award. He was chosen to give Britain’s 2013 “Alternative Christmas Message”, which takes place at the same time as the Queen’s Speech.
Edward Snowden Acceptance Speech (Transcription)
Thank you so much.
You know I am far under-qualified for this kind of audience. It is an extraordinary privilege to be counted among so many, around the world, who have fought for human rights even at great personal cost, even when it was hard, even when no one was watching, when they were not seeking recognition and when they never received it. Awards are by their nature not individual, but I can only accept this collectively. This award recognizes the work of so many - not just over recent years, but over decades, who recognize that human right is a new name for an old concept, the concept of liberty, and the price of fighting for liberty in changing times, in times of fear, in times of novel dangers, new threats, is unpredictable and often quite high.
The journalists that I've been privileged to work with, publishers around the world, activists, whistleblowers, civil society broadly, have put so much on the line. There are many, including Sarah Harisson who I know is in the audience tonight, who are not able to go home. I myself have lived in exile for more than a year and a half now. And these are things that are unlikely to change soon - but they are worth it. All the prices we've paid; all the sacrifices we've made - I believe we would do again. I know I would do again, because it was never about me. This was never about, you know, he or she. This was about us, this is about our rights, this is about the kind of societies that we want to live in, the kind of government that we want to have, the kind of world that we want to make for the next generation. And when we talk about government, we need to think about not just the quality of government, but the relationship that we have with them. Are we going to be the subject of government, or will we be partner to it? And even with all the brilliant minds that rule now, all the subject matter experts, all the elected officials, all of the representatives of people in industries around the world working on these issue, we cannot make proper decisions if we do nor have all and meaningful information.
When it comes to governments, when it comes to democracies, these institutions are founded on the principle of the consent of the government, and the consent of the people is not meaningful if it is not informed. Now, it is this principle that brought me forward, and when we think about the challenges and the problems that we face, the new atmosphere of fear that all of the governments and institutions around the world are operating in, as a response to these new threats, and we evaluate how things are going, there is reason for hope. I am optimistic. Because when we take a look at what's happened since last year, since I came forward, since I stood up, I was called a spy, I was called a traitor. Some of the most important and powerful officials in the United States debated - in public - placing me on a kill list...you know, to be had to be attacked by [inaudible] and so on and so forth.
Largely that controversy has ended. Governments that first said that people had no need to know this information, that this would put blood on our hands, that newspapers had put lives at risk, that they would bring down airplanes travelling over Europe - which happened; Europe brought down the plane of the president of Bolivia to search it for me, thinking that I might be seeking asylum, though I am not... This does not happen anymore. Instead, we see massive seat changes, we see incredible debates happening in parliaments around the world, happening in newspapers around the world, happening at academic institutions. We see the very fabric of the Internet being changed due to new technological implementations that protect people's privacies, that protect our rights, in a new and meaningful way that crosses borders. It means regardless of how rights are protected in China, if you use a rights-preserving service, you'll be protected no matter the laws of that particular jurisdiction.
This is an incredible gain for human rights around the world. When we talk about government itself, and the changes that have happened, these are nowhere more apparent than within the United States itself. The same government that denounced me, that brought three charges against me, including espionage, saying that, you know, I had sold information to our enemies, now said that's not true, and there's no evidence [inaudible] about me. The director of the NSA says, in fact, he doesn't see the sky falling. The president of the United States of America said that he appointed independent review boards to take a look at these programs of mass surveillance and to see if they really are [inaudible], and the conclusion of these boards was they were not - that they had never stopped a single imminent terrorist attack. And this is critical, because we learned mass surveillance, the policy that was kept from us - from the public, from not just Americans, not just from Swedes, but from the world - that it had not helped us, despite costing us so much of our rights. He said the debate that has happened since has not weakened us as a nation. The president said this has made us stronger. This was only the beginning. Since then we've seen federal courts rule against these programmes in the United States. We've seen the European Court of Justice strike down the data retention directive, saying that it was an unnecessary violation of rights, it put individuals unnecessarily at risk. The United Nations released a report saying that mass surveillance fundamentally violates human rights.
These are things that will be with us. They will be with us in every country. They provide us a foundation upon which to build. We can move forward from here as we continue to discuss these policies, these programs that are instituted behind closed doors without our awareness and without our consent to say "are these reasonable? Are they necessary? And are they proportionate to the threat that we face? Do they use the least intrusive means necessary to provide for necessary government investigations?" Because this is not about turning off intelligence communications. This is not about stopping police investigations. This is not about reducing our security. This is about securing our society. This is about securing our rights. This is about securing the liberties that we inherited as a generation and that we want the generation behind us to inherit in time. And together, by using this open forum, by using this discussion, by taking advantage of the sacrifices that so many people around the world have made, we can have those liberties, we can have those freedoms, we can have those rights, we can have an open and liberal society, because we say, even in times of threat, we stand for liberal values, and I hope, despite all that we've accomplished in the last year, we all recognize that this is only the beginning and there is so much to be done and that together we will achieve it. And I hope I can count on you in the next year as we stand and propose that the United Nations create a new special rapporteur on privacy and digital rights to ensure that no matter where the agency operates, no matter where the technology is placed, no matter what country is deciding that they face new and novel threats that require new narrowments of our rights, we stand for liberty.
Thank you. Thank you very much.
Interview from June 2014 (the intro is in Portuguese, while the interview itself is in English with Portuguese subtitles).
The most wanted man in the world - Wired, August 2014. Available here.
Glenn Greenwald. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. Metropolitan Books, USA, May 2014.