Speak not because it is safe, but because it is right. So goes the ethos of Edward Snowden, the notorious NSA contractor who in 2013 leaked highly classified information detailing the government’s broad domestic and international surveillance powers.
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Where he was once seen as a traitor -- or worse, a foreign spy -- Snowden has become something of a pseudo-superhero over the years. In fact, since joining Twitter in 2015, Snowden has amassed more than 3.8 million followers. And while he’s a highly active Tweeter, he only follows one account in return: the NSA.
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As a purveyor of truth and an advocate for more transparent privacy laws, Snowden has been an integral voice in the fight for freedom from overt and systemic government oppression. He’s chimed in on everything from the 2016 presidential election to the recent internet censorship happening Russia and more. He’s even schooled cable TV news pundits a time or two on the very meaning of surveillance.
With respect, that "reckless" approach led to the largest reform of unconstitutional domestic surveillance since 1978, and the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service journalism. If that's what recklessness looks like, we could use a hell of a lot more of it. https://t.co/QliTqo7o3h
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) February 4, 2018
He’s one of the strongest and most influential voices of reason in an age of countless government leaks and partisan whistleblowers; more than that, he’s one of the few prominent anti-government advocates who’s dedicated his life to working for the public (as stated in his Twitter bio).
So how has Snowden changed the world? Let’s take a look.
Snowden Signaled Sweeping Government Reforms
While the U.S. government (as well as governments abroad) had been spying on their citizens for decades, no one really knew how big or inclusive that system was. And while the Snowden leaks were certainly a tough pill to swallow, they gave the public a reason to force the government to undergo sweeping mass surveillance changes.
In 2015 the White House approved new reforms to limit the size and scope of their phone surveillance methods, and in the same year Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, which drastically reduced the amount of data the NSA was able to collect.
While these were both steps in the right direction, it’s worth pointing out that some of that progress is currently being undone.
Snowden Promoted Greater Digital Awareness
As an enemy of the nation, Snowden has been in exile for more than five years, first taking refuge in Hong Kong and eventually seeking asylum in Russia. With public appearances few and far between, he does offer the occasional video conference. In one particularly eye-opening conference with The Intercept back in 2017, Snowden detailed how the NSA is currently using people’s appliances to spy on them. Here’s an excerpt:
“What they do is they wait for when these devices are being shipped to you, when you order them on Amazon or whatever. They go to them at the airports. They get the box. They use a little hair dryer to soften the adhesive. They open up the box. Then they put the USB stick in. They seal the box back all nice and perfect, and then they ship it on to you. And now your router, your computer, your TV is hacked. This is a very routine thing that happens, right?”
While Snowden may be issuing most of his statements via Twitter, he’s careful not to disclose too much information. In fact, he refuses to sign up for other social media sites and has stated time and again the importance of using an encrypted messaging service. When speaking on the issue of citizen surveillance, he’s quick to reframe the issue away from terrorism and instead towards manipulation. One of his more famous quotes puts the issue of government spying in a new light:
“These programs were never about terrorism: they're about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They're about power.”
Though limited physically, Snowden’s never shies away from offering his expertise on the current state of affairs. Still warning the public of the dangers of mass surveillance, he recently went on the offense and blasted Facebook over the company’s handling of sensitive user data in one of his most powerful statements yet:
Businesses that make money by collecting and selling detailed records of private lives were once plainly described as "surveillance companies." Their rebranding as "social media" is the most successful deception since the Department of War became the Department of Defense.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) March 17, 2018
Snowden Changed How the World Views Privacy
As one of the first public whistleblowers, Snowden received enormous backlash for his actions. Knowing he would immediately be chastised, brandished a traitor, and even jailed, he still followed his convictions.
“Every person remembers some moment in their life where they witnessed some injustice, big or small, and looked away because the consequences of intervening seemed too intimidating. But there's a limit to the amount of incivility and inequality and inhumanity that each individual can tolerate. I crossed that line. And I'm no longer alone.”
It’s only years later that we can look back and see just how prophetic his warnings really were. With increased public scrutiny on data mining, social media scraping, and privacy swapping, it’s becoming clear how user data has become the ultimate weapon. And yet throughout all the noise, it was Edward Snowden who first warned us about the importance of keeping our digital lives private.
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