A brief biography: from sysadmin to sedition
"A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives. A popular government without popular knowledge or the means of acquiring it is a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both." - James Madison, "Report touching on the Alien and Sedition Laws" (1799)
Mr. Snowden was born June 21st, 1983 in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, the son of a US Coast Guard officer and a Federal Court clerk. A house where the work of the military and legal process sat down for dinner together every night. He was not an athletic young man, gravitating instead to books and computers, maps and math. Despite some obvious frailties, like many young men growing up in the shadow of 9/11, he felt a duty to serve his country. His father would have been pleased, but things did not go as planned; after enlisting in the US Special Forces, he broke both legs in a training exercise, effectively keeping him out of the latest Iraq War.
Instead, given his affinities of computers, he picked up work in facilities and systems security, first for a National Security Agency languages school in Maryland, then for the Central Intelligence Agency. By 2007, he had been established with a solid security clearance and posted to a CIA foreign station in Geneva. He disliked the country (too sterile by his own admission) and liked its people even less (whom he found to be both elitist and racist). By 2009, after applying and obtaining the highest SCI clearance, he left CIA and began work with Dell as a systems consultant in Japan, then Booz Allen in Hawaii, working within the National Security Agency.
For most of his work as a technician, Mr. Snowden seemed fairly oblivious to the politics or human rights implications of his employers' global operations. He was professional, he was comfortable, he was if anything, apolitical. At one point, he even opined online that those who leak sensitive government material (like Bradley Manning's video of a US helicopter gunship assault on unarmed civilians and journalists in Iraq) ought to be castrated. In 2010, however, something altered his fundamental attitude to his work and the larger issue of government surveillance. His anonymous online commentary with others became more jaded and cynical in tone. First reflective, then critical, finally deeply concerned, he began to read about the plight of other US whistle-blowers raising the alarm about domestic surveillance, men like Mark Klein, Thomas Drake, William Binney and others.
By 2012, he came to the realization that the American people had a right to know what their government was doing in their name. Using encrypted channels, he made contact with Laura Poitras, a US filmmaker examining secret government programs. Still an unknown quantity, he was then 'vetted' by an associated security researcher, Jacob Appelbaum. With that authenticity established, other linkages were made to reporters at the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers. In June 2013, Snowden left Hawaii with three laptop computers full of classified government documents, and the revelations began.
What we know now: a technical summary
"We cannot live good lives for ourselves in peacetime by the same methods we used to win battles in wartime. The problems of peace are altogether more subtle. I deny that there is any natural or divine law requiring that machines, efficiency and organization should forever increase in scope, power and complexity, in peace as in war. I see the growth of these now, rather as the result of a dangerous lack of law. The time has come to stop the lawlessness in that part of our culture." - Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, 1952 (p. 301)
In his own view, the question of the man should be of far less interest to the world than the matter at hand; so Mr. Snowden's motives and maneuverings have a certain movie quality at the moment, it is the global apparatus of transaction tracing and communications monitoring now laid bare that deserves real scrutiny. Certainly it is no exaggeration to fully refer to it as a ecosystem of surveillance, as its architectural sophistication and systems scope almost defies comprehension. In brief, here is what the intelligence briefings, court documents, legal opinions and reports leaked to date describe:
Global communications capture: this is accomplished at a variety of levels, referred to in documents as 'upstream' or 'downstream' depending on proximity to the end-user. In the case of trans-border acquisition, this can occur at the point where trans-continental fibre-optic communications cable come ashore. Logistically, there are no more than three dozen landing stations in the United States but given their bandwidth, an eighty percent of the world's communications move through these sites. The legal agreements securing the access and assistance of those companies have also been made public, in a effort separate from those described in US and UK media.
Harvesting IP traffic: the next step of 'mirroring' so that communications can be intercepted and routed to NSA is at the level of the Internet Exchange Point (also known as a carrier hotel or IXP). Companies such as AT&T, MCI, Sprint and Verizon operate many of these secure facilities and have been legally required to provide direct access and assistance to federal authorities in the US since 1992 and the passage of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). These companies not only provide physical connectivity when security agencies move to install interception equipment; they also actively provide 'bulk meta-data' which details all users' telephony and internet transactions (more on the legality of this below).
Integration with newer internet firms: NSA also has developed interfaces to exchange subscriber data, communications, contacts and use history with most social networking firms and online services firms like Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo! and so forth. A request / handover system entitled PRISM accomplishes this and can used to acquire essentially any personal information, logged communications or activity history upon an individual, be they a US citizen or foreign person.
Targeting allies: Various operational documents and post-postmortems also point to widespread surveillance of European Union and G8 officials, while attending diplomatic conferences, economic negotiations and bi-lateral exchanges. The trade-craft involved here can be as relatively simple as monitoring wifi use in hotels or use of a keylogger at complimentary workstations, all the way through to remote installation of specialized monitoring software onto mobile devices with known vulnerabilities. These techniques can be deployed throughout much of the developed world owing to the geographic distribution and economic position of NSA's close SIGINT partners: the UK Government Communications Headquarters, Canada's Communications Security Establishment, Australia's Defence Signal Directorate and the New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau.
Why it matters: legal implications
"Liberty cannot rest only on the goodness of transitory officials and leaders, whoever they may be, but relies on a durable foundation of constitutional protections. Those protections need defending. Rights that are not exercised are lost." - David Shipler, The Rights of the People: how our search for safety invades our liberties, 2011 (p. 305)
At root, the significant details released (computational power exercised, discrete billions of meta-data elements collected, century-long data retention periods) while significant pale in comparison to the questions of constitutionality, due process, and basic rule of law. Because if Congress was essentially misled as US intelligence authorities were rushed to amend the USA Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (the primary legal mechanisms for much of the domestic data collection), then Americans are confronting a very real crisis of democratic legitimacy. The institutions put in place to protect citizens have then, instead, been lying to their elected representatives in order to enlarge their surveillance coverage of domestic communications, community networks and individual movements. Because as it now appears evident, the system defaults are set to what the British refer to as 'full take'. IP logs, electronic funds transfers and online payments, communications traffic data, browsing history, search, VoiP, GPS and geo-location data: it's all captured and stored.
Which is to say that the political debate now unfolding in Washington, London, Brussels, Berlin then needs to be about more than the NSA phone record database. Localized finger-pointing is absurd in the context of near universal surveillance practices. Nor should the dialogue descend into legal hair-splitting about the precise statutory definitions separating the interception / collection, acquisition / tracking / monitoring of communications traffic in all their various flavours. That, too, is a shell game as far as fundamental rights to privacy and expression are concerned. And we ought not even entertain at this early stage the optics and niceties of increasing transparency by commercial actors like Google and Microsoft (although granted, these measures have had an upside). This is basically window dressing.
What we need now - urgently and openly - is a societal debate on precisely how far we are willing to hand over our essential privacy, autonomy and dignity to the State. In other words, we need a democratic discussion (probably our last) on what more authoritarian form we'd like our polities to take. Because that, in an nutshell, is where many of us in Anglo-American world now find ourselves. We have joined the citizens of Europe and Russia, the Middle East and China, India and south-east Asia. We are all monitored now.
A global shiver: the world reacts
"Secrecy is corrosive: it is antithetical to democratic values, and it undermines democratic processes. It is based on a mistrust between those governing and those governed, and at the same time, it exacerbates that mistrust." - Joseph Stiglitz, "On liberty, the right to know and public discourse: the role of transparency in public life" in Government Secrecy, ed. Marent and Goldman, 2009 (p. 697)
In the US, the waggons have been circled. Elected officials are already seeing their efforts at reform watered down or blocked. Committees are being presented with denials from one official, misleading information from the next, empty apologies from another. Meaning that Congress (the only body with a democratic legitimacy, being elected to represent the actual average citizen, as distinct from the military, corporate or administrative interests) for the moment is being effectively sidelined. Calls for a new Church Committee have yet to be taken up. This despite clear evidence a majority of Americans would still like to think there is democratic checks upon their federal security agencies. And so, as is the fashion of the time, it may in the end be settled not by the legislative branch, nor in the media or on the streets. Instead, it will fall to the the courts as a string of lawsuits by civil rights groups proliferate.
In the European Union, trade talks have understandably gone cold. More than a decade ago, the European Parliament was rattled by a report into the extent of the ECHELON system. This was an era of satellite phones and fax transmission done using microwave repeaters in many EU states, so there was much shock and dismay when it was revealed this was all subject to collection by NSA through a variety of ground, aerial and space-based platforms. The collective response at that time (the report was made public six day prior to 9/11) was to shudder, then shut up. The same dynamic is unlikely to prevail this time as various senior officials have contemplated banning transfer of personal data by certain companies, imposing hefty fines on global communications, abandoning intelligence-sharing arrangements, and so forth.
Whistle-stop tour: possible futures for Snowden
"A principal reason that Wikileaks, Public Intelligence, Cryptome and FAS are controversial is because they threaten to rupture distinctions between open and secret information and destabilize conventional notions of authority, expertise and control." - Hamilton Bean, No more secrets: open source information and the reshaping of US intelligence, 2011 (p. 136)
Given the long history of asylum seekers and political defectors that have jumped the ideological space between the US and Russia in the past century, it is not entirely surprising Mr. Snowden would swing through Moscow. A great many Western libertarians, intellectuals and dissidents over the years have done the same. It is also, quite likely, the only locale on the planet currently where American intelligence operatives would have considerable difficulty extracting him. Julian Assange of Wikileaks seemed not to fully think through this geo-political reality or the need for a proper contingency plan in going about that organization's work. He has been residing in a London consulate's broom-closet ever since.
The alternative paths for Mr. Snowden would now seem to have narrowed. He could be traded at some point; despite Russia having granted him asylum, the legal process there is not exactly independent of the political and intelligence structure. Effective redress is minimal. If sufficient advantage were to be presented to Putin, circumstances could easily change his mind and Mr. Snowden could very quickly find himself on a rendition aircraft headed home to stand trial. This possibility, however remote, would logically seem to bound his activities. Given some Americans currently seem to sympathize with his stance, it would be exceptionally unwise to either collaborate too closely with Russian authorities or to be seen as profiting personally from the information he has at his disposal. That would clearly poison what goodwill he may enjoy internationally and at home, given that Russia is a notably repressive regime.
Given the scope of what he has already revealed, and may yet release, it would probably be prudent for him to read up on his own legal situation and its moral gravity (Hannah Arendt's Responsibility and Judgement, Rebecca West's The New Meaning of Treason and Czesław Miłosz's The Captive Mind wouldn't be bad places to start). As a US citizen / fugitive from the American justice system, high profile movements or public deliberations would be acutely ill-advised, so that seems unlikely. He might start a book, or a blog of his experiences, but beyond that potential legal risk would seem to lurk. Research and reading would let things cool down, so that seems a realistic possibility. One can only assume he's been advised about the Russian preclusion for honeypots ...
Listen closely: possible futures for free societies
"The force of nearly all modern authority is derived from violence or the threat of violence. One must acknowledge with cryptography no amount of violence will ever solve a math problem." - J. Appelbaum, Cypherpunks: the freedom and future of the internet, 2012 (p. 61)
As the quote above points out, there are some technical measures like public-key encryption and web proxies that can provide some practical anonymity online. Solid cryptography properly deployed can be highly effective in protecting one-on-one communications and transactions. But this 'go it alone' approach has very real practical limits, the learning curve is steep and the tolerance for error is near-zero if one is already the target of official scrutiny.
So there has to be much broader deliberation. Legal controls ought to be restored. Constitutional principles re-affirmed. Many of the lawyers working in these arenas (and possibly the judges too) need some refresher courses in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Human and Political Rights and the basic idea of following not just the letter but spirit of the law.
Finally, the free media and individual journalists, online freedom and civil society groups, global academics and researchers, internet technologists and entrepreneurs all have to keep probing. They need to keep explaining to their friends, family and neighbours what's happening, how its happened before and why it was not supposed to happen again. Open and equal democratic societies always get a first chance for course correction in the face of legal crisis, they can even bounce back from a second one. But once a people settle into a pattern of complacency, we are certainly not guaranteed a third.
Sources and further reading: Daniel Solove, Nothing to hide: the false tradeoff between privacy and security (2011); Simon Chesterman, One Nation Under Surveillance (2010); Matthew Aid, The Secret Sentry: the untold history of the NSA (2009); James Bamford, The Shadow Factory (2008); "The NSA Files" via The Guardian UK