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Edward Snowden

He's been called a hero, a dissident, a whistleblower and a traitor. Regardless of the term you personally ascribe to the man who simply identifies as an “American,” one thing remains undisputed: Edward Joseph Snowden has sparked one of the biggest debates about government surveillance and the right to privacy in American history, and around the world.

AP Photo, File

In Laura Poitras' documentary CITIZENFOUR, Edward Snowden tells journalist Glenn Greenwald:

I am more willing to risk imprisonment, or any other negative outcome personally, than I am willing to risk the curtailment of my intellectual freedom and that of those around me.

He's been called a hero, a dissident, a whistleblower and a traitor. Regardless of the term you personally ascribe to the man who simply identifies as an “American,” one thing remains undisputed: Edward Joseph Snowden has sparked one of the biggest debates about government surveillance and the right to privacy in American history, and around the world.

A former employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Snowden first came into the spotlight in June 2013, when The Guardian published information that he had leaked to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill and Laura Poitras about mass, unauthorized government surveillance. The journalists had secretly met Snowden at a hotel room in Hong Kong, where he shared information stored on a USB key containing classified government information.

Snowden had contacted Poitras and Greenwald in hopes that they would be able to sift through the information he provided and decide what was in the public interest.

The initial revelations – reported by Greenwald on 5 June 2013 – showed that the NSA had been using a court order to obtain cell phone records from millions of unsuspecting Verizon phone users in the U.S.

Subsequent revelations include the existence of the PRISM program, which gave the NSA access to the servers of some of the biggest U.S. tech companies, including Microsoft, Apple and Google. Ensuing articles also showed that the U.S. was working with the U.K. government's security agency, GCHQ, to harvest data from Internet users all around the world. Further revelations show that the NSA had placed politicians under surveillance, among them Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil. (Click here to access a full list of the Snowden revelations).

On 9 June 2013 – just four days after The Guardian published its first article about the NSA leaks – Snowden chose to reveal his identity to the public, stating, "I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong."

Shortly after Snowden went public, the U.S. charged him with theft, “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person” – the last two charges brought under the 1917 Espionage Act.

On 21 June 2013, the U.S. revoked Snowden's passport and filed an extradition request from Hong Kong. Fearing that he would be treated inhumanely and not receive a fair trial in the U.S., Snowden fled to Moscow using travel documents issued by the Ecuadorian embassy in London, with the support of Wikileaks.

The whistleblower spent over a month in the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, until he was granted a one-year asylum in Russia, on 1 August 2013.

As the Snowden revelations marked their two-year anniversary, the U.S. Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, which many have described as a victory that would not have occurred without his whistleblowing efforts. The law enforces limits on the scope records collections and new measures to increase transparency and oversight of surveillance by the NSA.

While groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have expressed that the bill could have done a lot more to champion comprehensive surveillance reform, they also recognise it represents a positive step forward.

Since becoming a whistleblower, Snowden has become actively engaged with civil society initiatives that defend freedom of expression and the right to privacy. He is a board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, frequently speaks at events about surveillance (albeit remotely), and has supported civil society initiatives, including the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE)'s Snowden Archive.

Snowden continues to live in Russia, where he has been granted temporary asylum until August 2017.

Last Updated: 10 June 2015

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