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Surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden

He's been called a hero, a dissident, a whistleblower and a traitor, but one thing is undisputed: Edward Joseph Snowden sparked one of the biggest debates about government surveillance and the right to privacy in American history, and around the world.

AP Photo, File

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.


Edward Snowden in the 2014 documentary by Laura Poitras Citizenfour

He's been called a hero, a dissident, a whistleblower and a traitor. Regardless of the term you ascribe to the man who simply identifies as an "American," one thing remains undisputed: Edward Joseph Snowden sparked one of the biggest debates about government surveillance and the right to privacy in American history, and around the world. Today he is living as an involuntary exile in Russia, under fear of extradition to the US, where he faces charges of treason and potentially 30 years imprisonment.

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.

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 US.

Subsequent revelations include the existence of the PRISM program, which gave the NSA access to the servers of some of the biggest US tech companies, including Microsoft, Apple and Google. Ensuing articles also showed that the US 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 heads of state such as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and former 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 US 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 US 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 US, Snowden fled to Moscow using travel documents issued by the Ecuadorian embassy in London, with the support of Wikileaks.

He 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. This was extended by three years in 2014, and again, in January 2017, to 2020 after which he has the right to apply for Russian citizenship.

Although he has the right to travel, there is a real fear that if he leaves Russia for another country he could be extradited to the US. Snowden has repeatedly said that he had not intended to end up in Russia and had hoped that the Obama government would grant him a pardon and he could return home. He says that his applications to 21 countries had been refused. Rumours in early 2017 that the Russian government would extradite him to "curry favour" with President Trump were quashed when it was disclosed that he had been granted permission to remain until 2020.

Meanwhile, Snowden's revelations were to have signification repercussions. In 2015, the US 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 argued that the bill could have done much more to champion comprehensive surveillance reform, they recognised it represents a positive step forward.

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, and has supported civil society initiatives, including the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE)'s Snowden Archive. He frequently speaks at events about surveillance (albeit remotely) including a 2015 PEN America/Newseum event on whistleblowers and a 2016 event for the MIT MediaLab.

Snowden's story was featured in Citizenfour, a documentary co-produced by Poitras, Greenwald, MacAskill and others, released in October 2014. The documentary won numerous awards, including an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2015.

In April 2017, members of PEN Norway went to Moscow to deliver the 2016 Ossietzky Prize for Freedom of Expression to him in person. He had been unable to attend the award ceremony in Oslo the previous November when Norway refused to grant him assurances that he would not be extradited.

Snowden's future remains in limbo.

Last Updated: 19 July 2017

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