Big Brother IS Watching You: Edward Snowden and Government Surveillance

Bob Bates —

In 2013, the US government charged Edward Snowden with violating the Espionage Act for releasing National Security Agency (NSA) information, specifically for what the NSA termed its “bulk data collection program.” At the time the mainstream press focused on the material released, its content, and what it implied about US government surveillance of US citizens. The press also focused on questions about Edward Snowden. For example, who was he, what kind of access to classified information did he have, and what were the details of how he stole so much classified material? A number of articles even focused on his girlfriend and their life together. Thus, in general the press treated Snowden as a spy, guilty of espionage as he had revealed highly classified state secrets. What the press did not do was regard Snowden’s release of classified information as the protest of a conscientious objector to unlawful government surveillance of American citizens.

From his high level position in the US Intelligence Community (IC), Snowden had concluded that the massive surveillance of citizens violated their constitutional right to privacy. But Snowden’s concerns were largely set aside until the publication last fall Permanent-Record-by-Edward-Snowden__56357.1572799695of his book Permanent Record. In that work Snowden tells the story of his life and how he arrived at his decision to blow the whistle on IC operations that he viewed as embodying elements of totalitarianism in their specifics and scope. Snowden describes his work in the highest security level designated by the US government between 2012 and 2013 as sitting “at a terminal from which I had practically unlimited access to the communications of nearly every man, woman, and child on earth who’d ever dialed a phone or touched a computer,” including about 300 million American citizens “who in the regular conduct of their everyday lives were being surveilled in gross contravention of not just the Constitution of the United States, but the basic values of any free society.”

As early as 2009, whether serving at NSA or Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters or in the IC’s field offices in Geneva, Tokyo, or Honolulu, Snowden’s top secret clearance gave him almost universal access to total IC information—effectively making him a citizen of the world. He took this responsibility seriously and internalized a duty to be fully accountable for his involvement. Gradually but inexorably, his sense of duty shifted from government institutions and agencies to the broader public, who were unwitting targets of comprehensive data gathering through means that were effectively internet surveillance. As central to his IC duties, to assure that this data would never be lost, he had even helped design a backup storage system, should the primary system sustain damage or destruction. These data, consequently, comprised a permanent record.

This ubiquitous web of electronic mass surveillance is called “meta data” by the IC. They define it as broad “activity data,” or data about data. Example: A simple phone call’s data includes date and time of the call, its duration, numbers called from and received at, and location. A profile can be generated from this, and a person’s mobility can be tracked. With analysis of hundreds of calls, one’s daily activities and patterns will yield a substantially clear picture of lifestyle and contacts. As Snowden documents, such surveillance is a “constant and indiscriminate presence: the ear that always hears, the eye that always sees, a memory that is sleepless and permanent.” This is novelist George Orwell’s “Big Brother is watching you” on steroids, forever open to abuse.

Snowden stresses that fully half the Bill of Rights—the initial 10 Amendments to the Constitution of the United States—address civil liberties, guaranteeing citizens individual and property rights not subject to government scrutiny. Specifically, the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments “were all deliberately, carefully designed to hamper the government’s ability to exercise its power and to conduct surveillance.” Inclusive in these rights is the meta data that comprise our private lives—our speech and writing, movements and relationships, free choices—and “the record of all the stuff that we own, produce, sell, and buy online.”

Commercial “keepers” of the Internet now bear responsibility, too. Distortions, deceptions, disinformation, and outright falsities permeating the Internet in recent years have also infected the relationships of people toward their government and the government toward the press—delegitimizing journalism by assaults on facts and principles of truth.

From the strings of well documented operational and informational abuses following September 11, 2001, by the Bush-Cheney administration, to vitriolic political tribalism, to Russian hacking manipulations in 2016, to president Trump’s ongoing inflammatory bombast, disinformation, and lies—an unprecedented state of confusion, skepticism, and dysfunction has pervaded our society. Snowden also observes that in contrast to the early “frontier” years  of the Internet—a time when relative innocence, creativity, civility, and cooperation existed among the online general public—the emergence of competitive online commercialization has yielded what he calls “surveillance capitalism.” In the early 2000s, when “companies realized that people who went online were far less interested in spending than in sharing … able to tell their family, friends, and strangers what they were up to” and received reciprocal communications, “then all companies had to do was figure out how to put themselves in the middle of those social exchanges and turn them into profit.”

So, how did Snowden arrive at his decision, in May of 2013, to go public with his bombshell documents revealing the extent of governmental covert surveillance of citizens? Should he be considered a detestable leaker and betrayer of his country, with a legitimate governmental price on his head, or a courageous whistle blower in an undesired exile?

* * *

Edward “Eddie” Joseph Snowden’s genealogy on his mother’s side traces back to renowned Mayflower Pilgrim John Alden and the 1620 founding of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. Subsequent generations featured a line of seafarers along the Eastern Seaboard, many of whom held colonial, naval, and governmental posts through the mid-1700s, then a chain of military veterans in the American Revolution, the Civil War, the US Navy, and the Coast Guard.

Eddie’s father’s career was with the Coast Guard, and this paternal line ran back to 1658 with Maryland colonial landowners, Continental Army vets during the Revolution, munitions manufacturers for the military, newspapermen, farmers and dairymen, and land developers.

Eddie’s exposure in his youth to this long family history of service to one’s country and fellow men and women took root in forming his character, as he, too, wished to serve his country in some fashion. His father’s position in the Coast Guard was as an electronic systems engineer, involved in communications and secret operations. When Eddie was six years old, his father introduced him to a variety of newfangled devices, including the first basic video games, forerunners of the explosion of commercial games in the 1990s. Eddie became hooked and, when at just the ages of 7 and 8 he demonstrated unique adeptness operating these devices, his father tutored him on the art of disassembly, troubleshooting, repair, and reassembly—basically an introduction into engineering of all sorts of electronic devices and interconnected systems. When the Internet became operational around 1991 and the World Wide Web debuted in 1994, this early experience had already introduced Eddie to the basics of computer dynamics and programming. Between the ages of 9 and 12, he immersed himself in the magic of websites, games, and communications. At 13 he became fascinated by the challenge of hacking into whole new worlds of systems and their vast array of contents. By then he also developed an ease in assuming alternative online identities, such that he was able to venture into interactions with adults and activities extending beyond youthful interests.

By age 16, in the context of his parents’ recent divorce, a young-but-mature Ed Snowden immersed his energies into preparing for his future. He dropped out of high school—later earning his GED in order to qualify for government hiring—and living with his mother in her apartment, his routines achieved almost total independence. He enrolled in community college advanced courses leading to computer degree specialties and on his own time entered the world of freelancing involving web designs, programming, and integration of advanced systems.

lanl-entranceAn incident when Ed was 16 illustrates both the application of his skills and his sense of responsibility. Out of curiosity he was exploring the online site of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) nuclear research facility, known for its top secret operations during World War II (the development of America’s nuclear bomb programs) and continuing over the next half-century with research and development. Ed discovered a vulnerability in the system that allowed him to hack into internal operations—to access confidential folders and subfolders and to read memos and personnel files. He was shocked. Immediately he sent an email informing LANL of this critical vulnerability. Getting no response over the next week, he called their general information number and, being transferred to voice mail, left a shaky-voiced message. Another couple tense weeks passed before a high-up informations technology official called. His mother’s face, in answering the phone and reacting to the identification of the caller as an official of LANL asking to speak to Mr. Ed Snowden, drained of blood as she fumbled the phone toward her son. After a gracious thank you and brief discussion, the official realized he was not speaking to an adult. Asking Ed’s age, a momentary silence followed. Then, speaking for LANL, the official responded with an invitation for Ed to get in contact with them for employment when he turned 18.

In advancing his qualifications, Ed took a series of classes to become certified in computer systems administration and systems engineering. At 18, he passed the tests for these, the culmination of two years of commitment to goals which qualified him for government service at an advanced entry level.

* * *

Then came 9/11, and with it, came America’s knee-jerk patriotism and gung-ho resolve to retaliate and destroy the terrorist networks involved. In the passion of the moment, the 18-year-old Snowden saw the opportunity to carry on the family legacy of service to country. He enlisted in the Army, being accepted into a special forces program focusing on communications and engineering. Though his slight physical build underwent demanding challenges, he welcomed the toughness of boot camp, determined to persevere. However, it was not to be. As boot camp was coming to a close, during a rugged field exercise he sustained severe fractures of both tibia, rendering him unable to walk. The Army, partly to absolve itself of liability down the road, promptly drew up their standard discharge papers which, when signed provided no basis for future claims by the injured party. Wanting to get on with his life, Snowden signed.

Later, reflecting on why he would submit in the first place to rigorous Army field training, Snowden said, “I wanted to be recognized for and succeed at something else [beyond sitting at a computer terminal]—something that was harder for me. I wanted to show that I wasn’t just a brain in a jar—I was also heart and muscle.” He bought into the Army’s recruiting slogan to “Be all you can be!” Years later, when he saw what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, he took a sharp turn to the left, commenting “This became the greatest regret of my life,” realizing how easy it was for the state to manipulate the populace into approving attitudes of jingoistic aggression and warfare.

An extended healing and rehabilitation period consumed a considerable amount of time during the year following his Army discharge. But Snowden found more classes to take that would further enhance his qualifications for employment in the Intelligence Community. He filed an application with the IC for Top Secret Sensitive Compartmental Information eligibility, continued with advanced course work, and waited for the government’s response. During the course of 2004 when his application was accepted, he passed rigorous screening, multiple interviews, a polygraph test, and was accepted into the IC, with an initial placement in the National Security Agency as he turned 22.

As part of government service, Snowden solemnly took the oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Growing up in the computer age, he had taken to heart another principle. In 1990, cyber-libertarian activist John Perry Barlow had promulgated what he called the “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace,” which reads, “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station at birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” In the years ahead, Snowden would come to a personally agonizing crossroads—somehow he would have to figure out how to honor both commitments.

* * *

During the remaining years of his twenties, Snowden would achieve expert adeptness at systems administration and systems engineering—fixing and maintaining the IC’s electronic cyberspace content, as well as creating new and better entwined systems networks. But alongside his pride in serving his country in these ways, he found himself gradually experiencing disillusionment with indoctrinated, unquestioned loyalty across the ranks of the IC—a “sense of tribalism [requiring] the obligation to lie, conceal, dissemble, and dissimulate,” with a need to overcompensate for what Snowden saw as a sense of guilt the IC carried for its failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks. As a consequence, the IC’s systems ops personnel were driven, through its vast array of interconnected intelligence-gathering apparatuses, to search out, identify, collect, and store essentially all data electronically produced around the globe.

Philip Mudd

Philip Mudd, former Deputy Director of the CIA Counterterrorist Center, in his book Black Site: The CIA in the Post-9/11 World, published in 2019, substantiates this phenomenon. Without revealing classified information, Mudd documents how the CIA, Pentagon, FBI, and Department of Justice collaborated in exploiting US and international laws through—unknown at the time—black ops prisoner sites, renditions, interrogation practices, and other illegal activities carried on behind a veil of secrecy. Legalities and ethical standards often clashed with what was occurring, unknown to the general public, until eventually revealed by investigative reporting. Mudd concludes that these have left a dark stain on US policies, noting that,”at the time, these seemed justified by the context of the US needing to prevent another terrorist catastrophe. For ostensibly a higher cause, laws and moral judgments were suspended.”

During the aforementioned period, Snowden was seeing this evidence before his eyes. He notes that the higher up in the IC’s ranks an employee rose, the greater the access to “virtually every byte of his employer’s existing digital store of data.” Through his “technical prowess to enable my clearance to be used to its maximum potential,” he could access, read, and copy even the most sensitive and classified documents and IC communications in real time or at his leisure.

In 2011-12 as the sole operator of the Office of Informational Sharing, Snowden designed a system he called Heartbeat, “because it took the pulse of the NSA and of the wider IC.” He singlehandedly scanned, read, evaluated, and pulled documents covering every agency and linkages between and beyond, compiling a daily journal, or readboard, posted throughout the government, thereby keeping everyone apprised of the latest innovative programs and developments—in particular, the aims and capacities of the entire IC’s mass surveillance system.

With this technology advancing far faster than human ethical principles, the IC was now applying its capacity to take over control of people’s electronic devices—any kind of computer, smart phone or tablet, including their cameras and microphones. Big Brother was now within your skin, directly living your life along with you—unbeknownst to you—a total violation of your rights to privacy of person and property.

The scope of this and the dark potential for abuse alarmed Snowden. Over a period of years, he had never encountered anyone similarly uneasy nor any questioning feedback suggesting anyone throughout the system was concerned with overstepping the bounds of Constitutionally protected privacy. Something had to be done; someone had to step forward. To be a whistle blower working through channels and chain of command  would be fruitless, as all of the IC’s supervisors and directors and their superiors were complicit in their awareness of what was going on.

This surreptitiously-acquired data was massive in scope—personal, financial, legal,  medical, genetic, employment, educational, organizational memberships—and it traced activities and patterns. Snowden states, “No matter the place, no matter the time, no matter what you do, your life has become an open book” vulnerable to exploitation in cyberspace. Everyone’s data is susceptible unless protected by complex algorithmic encryptions.

In preparation for disclosing to the world what was going on, Snowden began carefully compiling and storing e-copies of thousands of  revealing documents. By early 2013, fully realizing he would be ending his career, but more importantly fulfilling his solemn oath to protect the Constitution, Snowden arranged to turn over the store of documentation to the Fourth Estate—the public press. He had faith that the media would provide scope and details for the public, while screening for confidentiality so as not to jeopardize any undercover agents or IC programs needing to remain protected for national security considerations.

Director Poitras  is interviewed at a reception for Academy Award nominees hosted by the International Documentary Association in Beverly Hills
Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras

In late May of 2013 without anyone else knowing, he flew to Hong Kong and holed up in an unobtrusive hotel. In advance he had made contacts anonymously with two people he had screened and felt he could trust. From Hong Kong he recontacted them: Laura Poitras, videographer and producer of documentary films, and Glenn Greenwald, author and journalist for the British newspaper The Guardian. They flew to Hong Kong and clandestinely met with Snowden, and during the next week accepted his archives of documentation. Snowden spoke on camera, explaining their contents and significance, delineating in detail how this cache represented global surveillance of unsuspecting citizens, thereby violating laws designed to protect rights of privacy and property.

On June 14, within just a few days of the initial reporting by Greenwald in The Guardian and picked up and published in other major newspapers, the US government cited Snowden in a warrant under the Espionage Act, and followed this with an extradition order. On June 23 Snowden, traveling in the company of Poitras on an itinerary of flight hops to sanctuary in Equador, had his passport revoked by the US while on stopover in Moscow. This resulted in what has turned out to be an involuntary “temporary exile” status, stretching from August 1, 2013 to the present day.

For the past six years, Edward Snowden has remained indefinitely trapped in a series of rented Moscow apartments. Most of his days are spent in front of his computer. He writes and interacts with parties around the world, focusing on “the protection of civil liberties in the digital age to audiences of students, scholars, lawmakers, and technologists.” He serves as president of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and is on the board of directors of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. Snowden has limited freedom to go out to eat, shop, and attend cultural events such as symphonies or go to historically notable places such as museums. He and Lindsay Mills, having maintained a close relationship since 2006, got married two years ago, and she has been allowed to move to Moscow to share secluded life with Ed.

In 2014, Poitras released her documentary, Citizenfour. about Snowden. It won multiple international awards, including an Academy Award for best documentary film in 2015. (Snowden, a dramatic film starring Joseph Gorden-Levitt, followed in 2016). Greenwald and colleague Ewen MacAskill, political correspondent for The Guardian, collaborated in extended reporting that was published by newspapers around the world, resulting in pressures and demands for acts and laws to protect people’s cyberspace rights. A US court of appeals ruling in 2015 granted limited protection of rights, and induced Congress to subsequently pass amendments to the USA Freedom Act, prohibiting bulk collection of citizens’ phone records without formally granting requests through Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) probable cause warrants. In 2016 the European Union Parliament passed the General Data Protection Regulation Act, specifying that data is the property of people, to be protected from data gatherers under penalty of law. Also, Internet security has been strengthened through technological advancements, such as encryption tools and apps, thanks to pressure and lawsuits against governments and corporations by both public-interest groups and media organizations. And, the United Nations reaffirmed its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home, or correspondence. … Everyone has the right to the protection of law against such interference.”

Knowing he has done a genuine service to humanity around the world pleases Snowden, and suffices for now as partial personal fulfillment. He points out, however, that despite progress, “Laws are country-specific, whereas technology is not,” and loopholes will always remain.

For Snowden himself, another complication has arisen. On December 18, 2019 a US District Court judge ruled that he must pay the federal government proceeds from sales of his Permanent Record book on the basis that he did not obtain contractually required prior approval of the book’s contents from NSA and the CIA. Snowden’s prompt open-ended tweet response was: “The government may steal a dollar, but it cannot erase the idea that earned it. … I wrote this book, Permanent Record, for you, and I hope the government’s ruthless desperation to prevent its publication only inspires you to read it—and then gift it to another.”

One thought on “Big Brother IS Watching You: Edward Snowden and Government Surveillance

  1. On September 2, 2020 the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that what the NSA’s mass surveillance programs which Snowden revealed were unlawful. It further indicated that US Intelligence leaders, in their public defending of the programs, were not truthful in stating that NSA never knowingly ever collected information on Americans.

    A statement from the ACLU’s National Security Project, confirmed that NSA’s surveillance programs thus were in clear violation of the US Constitution.

    Snowden’s status regarding the government’s case against him currently remains the same.


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