Originally published on June 13, 2013.
Updates as of August 1, 2013:
- Russia has granted asylum for one year to Snowden that allows him to live, travel, and work there
- Finally left the Moscow airport where he had been residing since June 23
- Has been offered permanent asylum by four other countries — Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador though he has no plans to leave Russia
- Snowden has been issued an international arrest warrant on espionage charges from the U.S.
- U.S. asked Russia for Snowden’s extradition, they refused causing an even more strained relationship
What is the NSA and Snowden leak controversy?
Shortest answer: Edward Snowden leaked information regarding top-secret government surveillance programs.
In a video interview that took place in Hong Kong, Edward Snowden leaked National Security Agency (NSA) documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post regarding top-secret government surveillance programs at a Hong Kong hotel June 9, 2013. Snowden’s leak expanded an intense debate over the clash between national security and online privacy.
Snowden is currently said to be hiding in Moscow though alleged plans to fly to Ecuador on Monday, June 24th never come to fruition.
What exactly is the NSA?
Shortest answer: Intelligence agency that protects the U.S.’ information and looks for terrorist connections.
The National Security Agency (NSA) – a program that can be included in the “Big Brother is watching” phrase – is an intelligence agency in the U.S. government responsible for the collecting and analyzing foreign communication and foreign signals of intelligence in order to protect the U.S. government communications and information systems.
By law, NSA’s intelligence gathering is limited to foreign communications, although domestic incidents such as the NSA warrantless surveillance controversy have occurred.
Who is Edward Snowden?
Shortest answer: A government contractor that worked at an NSA center.
Edward Snowden, 30, was a three-month employee of a government consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.
At Booz Allen (he has since been terminated), he worked as a systems administrator at an NSA Threat Operations Center in Hawaii, one of several facilities detect threats against government computer systems.
In other words, he was a low-level intelligence government contractor.
What information did Edward Snowden leak?
Shortest answer: How much personal information the government has access to. A lot.
Snowden leaked information about two different NSA operations called PRISM:
- Collection of data from U.S. phone call records to search for possible links to terrorists abroad
- Surveillance of online communications to and from foreign targets to detect suspicious behavior
Snowden got his hands on a set of briefings and reports detailing how the NSA’s PRISM program retrieves information from prominent tech companies (Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, etc.) without court orders or subpoenas.
Unsure of whether this is a case of media exaggeration or actual truth, the leak is said to be “one of the most sensational leaks of classified material in U.S. history” [USA Today].
What is the PRISM program and how can they access our information like that?
Shortest answer: Monitors private Web data if they feel it’s a threatening foreign exchange.
PRISM is used to monitor private Web data, but it cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen. However, analysts need to only be at least 51% confident the exchange they’re monitoring is foreign to access the information.
PRISM is a computer program used to collect and analyze data legally requested by the NSA and divulged by nine Internet companies (e.g., they asked for easy access to users’ information, the big tech guys said sure).
The government can still access other companies’ servers that didn’t agree to this access if they have a legitimate request, but the tech companies are under no legal obligation to make that process easier.
How can you avoid this? You can’t.
Why did Snowden leak the NSA documents?
Shortest answer: He believes he was being a public servant.
Snowden said he leaked the information to expose abuse and protect the public, not to cause damage.
If he really wanted to harm the U.S he could’ve leaked “the rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all around the world, the locations of every station, what their missions are and so forth”. [Video Transcript]
How did Snowden get access so easily to these documents?
Shortest answer: Snowden claims he was given access; admin officials say otherwise.
The leaked documents were highly classified that would presumably be sealed from most employees. Snowden claims he had authorized access, administration officials say otherwise.
Supposedly the NSA employs layers of security to scrutinize employees, including keystroke-monitoring systems to identify potential breaches or unwarranted searches of NSA databases. Yet, he got through these. [Washington Post]
Basically, no one is sure or at least admitting to giving him access.
Why is Snowden’s NSA leak a big deal? Is the NSA leak damaging to the United States?
Shortest answer: Potential damage to national security.
Government is currently running an internal review of the potential damage to national security. There are still unanswered questions about whether this information actually gives terrorists and other countries a leg up. On the other side, revealing these surveillance programs gives terrorists who are paying attention a head’s up on how to avoid detection. [American Thinker]
Is Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor?
Shortest answer: Some think he gave an advantage to our enemies, others say he sacrificed himself to expose government snooping.
His leak has sparked a mix of disapproval and praise.
- “Americans are at risk, it shows our adversaries what our capabilities are, and it’s a giant violation of the law,” John Boehner.
- Some believe PRISM violates the 4th Amendment (the right to privacy). Lawmakers say it’s necessary to prevent terrorism.
- He broke an oath of secrecy that he took willingly and he broke the law by disclosing government secrets. – Rick Moran [American Thinker]
- Social media overwhelmingly hailed Snowden as a hero for sacrificing himself to expose the government snooping.
- The Guardian (the newspaper that Snowden gave the interview to) says he “will go down in history as one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers.”
- He realized humanity was being compromised by the blind implementation of machines in the name of making us safe. [CNN]
- “I think most Americans don’t want this surveillance. The civil disobedience happened when Snowden felt like he had no other options. [Reuters]
- Thousands of Americans have signed a White House petition to pardon him
- Any terrorist who doesn’t think they’re under constant surveillance anyway, is an amateur. [Business Insider]
Is the NSA surveillance program good or bad?
Shortest answer: Good – surveillance has helped stop attacks in the past. Bad – Americans deserve to know how much information the government has access to.
The debate right now is on the trade off between privacy and national security.
Surveillance is good
- 56% of those polled said the NSA’s tracking of Americans’ phone calls to investigate terrorism is acceptable [USA Today]
- Americans are not “snooped on” unless they communicate with a terrorist in another country [Reuters]
- Past data mining exercises have stopped attacks in the United States and overseas
- The programs provide leads to potential and existing terrorists
- Since 9/11, there has only been two major terror attacks on U.S. soil (Boston Marathon, Shooting at Fort Hood) [Politifact]
- Obama said he put strict protocols in place that require judicial review and a warrant for all PRISM targets. They said they are not listening to your conversations or reading emails, they’re simply identifying phone numbers that could be connected to terrorists.
- Americans love to share data. We post photos and videos on social media without a second thought. Rarely do we think about what we’re letting the world know. [Business Insider]
Surveillance is bad
- 41% of those polled said the National Security Agency’s tracking of Americans’ phone calls to investigate terrorism is acceptable [USA Today]
- “Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” Senator Jeff Merkley, R
- Where does it stop?
- There is no assurance that the harvested information will not be misappropriated [Business Insider]
- Some 1.4 million people have access to the country’s most sensitive information. Of those, one third are contractors. Snowden showed that all it takes is one disgruntled employee to spill the country’s secrets. [Business Insider]
What is the government going to do?
Shortest answer: Snowden has been officially charged with espionage in the U.S. though Russia refuses to extradite him.
Snowden fled to Moscow from Hong Kong after his interview despite having a revoked U.S. passport in late June.
While Snowden has officially been charged with espionage and theft of government property, Obama has said he refuses to play games with Russia in order to get Snowden back. [source]
As of now, there is little the government can do though it does increase the already strained relationship of Russia and the US.
What will happen to Edward Snowden?
Shortest answer: He will live in Russia under the one year asylum approval for now.
Snowden is currently in Russia on a one year asylum (when one is afraid to live in their own country, they can requested to live in another country, become a refuge) approval that will allow him to work, live and travel in the country.
Has been offered permanent asylum by four other Latin American countries — Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador though he has no plans to leave Russia
If Snowden is extradited back to the U.S., he will stand trial on charges of espionage and theft.
Why did Edward Snowden choose Hong Kong to give the interview?
Shortest answer: Because of their commitment to free speech.
Snowden said he chose Hong Kong because of its commitment to free speech and political dissent (freedom to express dissatisfaction with the government).
Some argue that Hong Kong was a risky choice since they have an extradition treaty (agreement to surrender person(s) accused of a crime under the laws of the requesting state) with the United States.
How is the rest of the world affected by NSA’s surveillance program? How do they feel about the leak?
Shortest answer: Some aren’t very happy and will re-examine the information they give the U.S. access to.
Some foreign governments and groups (Asia, Europe) aren’t very happy with the United States.
- The European Union has data protection laws in place and do not want mass surveillance. They may re-examine and limit the data they have given the U.S. access to.
- Groups in Asia, including three supported by the United States, said they were worried the data collected in the surveillance programs could someday be used against them as they share a lot of sensitive, election-related data using online programs. [Reuters]