Ed Snowden: Hero or Traitor?

This post is not going to settle that question for you, and it’s not one I thought I’d be writing about, a recent resurgence in coverage of Snowden has made me think more deeply about him, now that the original panic and dismay have subsided. Most of the coverage is prompted by reporter James Bamford’s recent article, published in Wired. Bamford conducted the longest set of in-person interviews with Snowden since he went to ground in Russia a year ago. I’ve also been studying Stuart Taylor, Jr.’s, essay, published by Brookings, “The Big Snoop: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Terrorists.”

Who Is Ed Snowden?

Ed Snowden, NSA, privacy, security, TED talk

Ed Snowden’s TED talk (photo: wikimedia.org)

Snowden’s position from the beginning has been that he is a patriot and a whistleblower, “bent on saving his country from becoming an Orwellian security state,” as Taylor puts it. Others have recorded his ambition, his highly visible, well-polished initial announcements and PowerPoints, and his more recent TED talk, which may suggest more complex and troubling motivations. Washington Post reporter and author David Ignatius (whose novel about a rogue CIA cyber-expert is reviewed on my home page) has said, “Snowden looks these days more like an intelligence defector, seeking haven in a country hostile to the United States, than a whistleblower.”

Ironically, given the current fractured state of U.S.-Russia relations, Snowden was offered asylum there only if he stopped his work aimed “at harming our American partners,” Russian President Putin stipulated. Snowden first withdrew his asylum application, but ultimately agreed not to release more intelligence secrets. The stolen National Security Agency (NSA) documents are no longer in his hands.

Security vs. Privacy

You will recall that in Snowden’s jobs, he accumulated evidence that the NSA was collecting and storing phone records, emails, and other private Internet activity of a great many American citizens, not just those suspected of terrorism, associating with terrorists, or even remotely connected to any—we “ordinary Americans.” This revelation led to retired NSA director Keith Alexander’s famous haystack analogy: If you want to find a needle in a haystack, you need the whole haystack.

In polls, the majority of Americans oppose this wholesale domestic spying, and the government has damaged its credibility as a result. Yet, Snowden worries the public will become inured to disclosures of mass surveillance, as the PBS News Hour reported. Our acceptance may be in part because Ordinary Americans feel privacy is already hopelessly lost, in part because we believe we are helpless to stop the spying, and in part because people tend to become numb to successive outrages and risks

By spying on foreign citizens and leaders, NSA also has damaged relationships abroad. What the public has heard most about, however, is the spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone calls, while “the violation of 80 million Germans is a nonstory,” Snowden says.

A fundamental and inevitable tension Taylor explores is between national security and individual privacy and the irony that a security apparatus is needed in order to protect privacy. He covers, in a readable way, the basic tenets of relevant U.S. law going back to the Bill of Rights, in which the Fourth Amendment obligates the U.S. government to ensure that citizens “be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Before the telegraph, before the telephone, before the Internet, securing one’s “papers and effects” was relatively simple.

Snowden Fallout

Today, we must entrust the transmission and disposition of our communications to third parties that may or may not have an interest in protecting them or be able to do so when the NSA comes calling. However, the bad publicity Snowden’s revelations generated for the telephone companies and Internet giants has prompted a rethinking of corporate policies and strengthening of encryption practices.

Those steps haven’t come cheap. Tech companies have been hit by both substantial additional expenses and loss of income, as foreign clients become wary of their products—a potential $180 billion revenue loss, according to Forrester Research analysts.

In addition, the State Department says Snowden has not only damaged U.S. intelligence-gathering, but also potentially endangered U.S. agents abroad, without citing specifics.

Evolution of Law

After Watergate, Fourth Amendment protections were purportedly strengthened by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which put a layer of judicial review between U.S. citizens (or permanent resident aliens) and the intelligence agencies that want to spy on them. But post-9/11, the Senate outflanked the FISA mechanism, in the hurriedly adopted Patriot Act. That new law widened the government’s authority to conduct surveillance and investigations.

Although critics predictably labeled the sweeping reforms President Obama proposed last spring as “going too far” and “not going far enough,” the changes may have begun to move the needle. And, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to halt the NSA’s practice of conducting warrantless searches of its database containing millions of Americans’ emails and phone calls—“one of many proposed reforms that never would have happened had it not been for Snowden,” Bamford claims.

Evolution of Technology

The “exponential leap” in authority under the Patriot Act coincided with greatly increased technical ability to collect, store, and monitor electronic communications data, a combination that, in Taylor’s words, has “run roughshod over laws, standards of conduct, and international norms,” jeopardizing the desired balance between national security and individual privacy contained in the Fourth Amendment.

NSA’s new million-square-foot data storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah, potentially can hold “upwards of a yottabyte of data, some 500 quintillion pages of text,” Bamford says. Every hour, billions of phone calls, faxes, emails, computer-to-computer data transfers, and text messages from around the world flow through this facility. “Some flow right through, some are kept briefly, and some are held forever.”

Then, there are the leaks. And, as Bamford points out, evidence suggests that Snowden is not the only leaker, because some media reports cite documents that apparently did not come from him. This put NSA in a real bind: “accused of rogue behavior in its snooping,” Taylor says, “and of incompetence in protecting the information it had collected.” Snowden says NSA cannot seem to tell which documents he just electronically “touched” and those he actually stole, though he says he left digital clues to enable them to be differentiated. “I figured they would have a hard time,” he told Bamford. “I didn’t figure they would be completely incapable.”


A second major tension, is “the severe limit on the degree to which transparency can be reconciled with functions of government that must be opaque — that is, secret — in order to be effective,” Taylor says. Certainly, the solutions Snowden himself suggests do nothing to reconcile that tension. In Bamford’s article, he suggests, for example, “making encryption a universal standard—where all communications are encrypted by default.” Regarding future leaks, he says, “The question for us is not what new story will come out next. The question is, what are we going to do about it?”

Further Information

Check out the upper left corner of the Brookings article to see what its computers are tracking about you, as you read.

NSA surveillance capabilities allow it to map your movements by monitoring the unique identifiers emitted by your cell phone, computer, and other electronic devices. You can get the flavor of this by checking out what Google can do, unless your device has this feature turned off (how to turn it off).

Read about the MonsterMind, a real? program designed to counter international electronic threats. It poses two dangers: the ability to wage autonomous retaliatory attacks that have unanticipated consequences; and, to the privacy point, the system’s need to monitor virtually all communication between people in the United States and those overseas, as Snowden says, “without a warrant, without probable cause or even a suspicion of wrongdoing. For everyone, all the time.”

Experts’ views on the future of the Internet, in light of a range of security concerns, reported in July 2014 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.