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 National Security Agency contractor. He discovered classified evidence about the U.S. government secretly operating a global system of mass surveillance, a practice contrary to its public statements and in violation of human rights standards and international law.
After evaluating documents carefully to ensure their release would be in the public interest and would not needlessly reveal legitimate operations, he revealed the to the press. For this act, 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 changes in policies and technologies.
Edward Snowden 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.
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.”
Right Livelihood 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 straight away, and not able to work with journalists. (…) He would not have been able to make his case in 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”.
In the words of Right Livelihood Laureate Daniel Ellsberg: "Snowden has done more for our Constitution in terms of the Fourth and First Amendment than anyone else I know."
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.