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9 Facts About NSA Prism Whistleblower

Here's what we know about Edward J. Snowden, the NSA contractor last seen in Hong Kong -- and why the Bradley Manning case could affect Snowden's fate.

Mathew J. Schwartz

June 11, 2013

7 Min Read

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The Syrian Electronic Army: 9 Things We Know


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The Syrian Electronic Army: 9 Things We Know

Who is Edward Joseph Snowden?

Snowden, 29, has come forward to say that he's responsible for leaking information about the NSA's online communications surveillance program, known as Prism, to the Guardian, as well as leaking details of the NSA's access to U.S. phone call metadata to The Washington Post.

By some estimations, they are the most important leaks in U.S. history, surpassing even Daniel Ellsberg's release of the secret history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers, as well as the leak of classified State Department cables and information relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to WikiLeaks, for which Pfc. Bradley Manning has been charged and is only now standing trial. Furthermore, according to The Guardian, Snowden has leaked "thousands" of documents, of which "dozens" are newsworthy and not all have yet been published.

[ What happens when leak controversies spill over into other areas of business? Read DataCell Wins WikiLeaks Donation Case. ]

In the midst of these leaks, here's what we know about Snowden, as well as what might be in store for him:

1. From Army Veteran To CIA Employee.

Snowden is a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the Central Intelligence Agency who's been working at the National Security Agency for the past four years as a contractor employed by various firms, including Dell and most recently Booz Allen. He told The Guardian that he earned about $200,000 a year, which commentators said would be a commensurate salary for a contract NSA IT administrator who holds a valuable top-secret clearance.

Sunday, Booz Allen issued a statement confirming that Snowden "has been an employee of our firm for less than three months, assigned to a team in Hawaii."

How did Snowden come to work in IT? Long interested in computers, he enlisted in the Army Reserve in 2003 in a Special Forces training program, but was discharged four months later after breaking both of his legs in a training accident. According to news reports, he then began a job as a security guard at a covert CIA facility in Maryland, then moved to an information security job with the CIA.

2. Snowden Requests No Anonymity.

Snowden purposefully requested that after publishing the leaked data, both The Guardian and Post identify him by name. "I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong," Snowden told The Guardian, emphasizing that he's not seeking media attention.

"I don't want public attention because I don't want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the U.S. government is doing," he said. "The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to."

3. Reason For Leak: Dismantle "Architecture Of Oppression."

In a video interview, Snowden said the rationale for the leak was to highlight the extent to which the U.S. government was spying on its own citizens, and that he was no longer able to countenance working a job that involved building an "architecture of oppression."

"The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting," he told The Guardian. "If I wanted to see your emails or your wife's phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards."

"I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded," he said. "That is not something I am willing to support or live under." 4. Snowden Carefully Selected Secrets.

Snowden told reporters that the information he leaked was designed to trigger a debate on the "scope of surveillance in America," but also to avoid the types of mistakes allegedly made by Pfc. Bradley Manning, who's accused of leaking documents that put the lives of confidential U.S. sources abroad at risk.

"I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions," said Snowden. "I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant."

5. Into Hiding In Hong Kong.

But Snowden didn't sit around waiting to be arrested. About three weeks ago, according to The Guardian, Snowden finished copying the last of the documents he planned to leak, then told his NSA supervisor that he required a two-week medical leave related to epilepsy, for which he was diagnosed last year. Then he flew to Hong Kong, registered at a nice hotel just down the street from the CIA station based in the local consulate, and rarely left, saying it was possible he would be rendered by U.S. agents, detained by Chinese officials, or extradited.

Snowden said he chose Hong Kong, a Chinese territory that enjoys its own economic and political system, for its "spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent." In the short term, he hoped the government wouldn't deport him. Longer term, "my predisposition is to seek asylum in a country with shared values," he said. "The nation that most encompasses this is Iceland. They stood up for people over Internet freedom. I have no idea what my future is going to be."

6. Charges Filed Against Snowden.

Charges have now been filed against Snowden by the Department of Justice, The New York Times reported Tuesday. The charges pave the way for his extradition, since foreign courts typically require criminal charges to be filed before they'll hear an extradition request.

Multiple investigations are also underway into the leaks. The FBI's Washington field office will lead one investigation. The NSA, meanwhile, launched its own investigation following revelations first published Wednesday by The Guardian, and is trying to ascertain the full extent of the information that was taken and released by Snowden.

7. Hong Kong Extraditions Subject To Delays.

Could Snowden successfully avoid being extradited from Hong Kong? Regina Ip, a former secretary of security who serves in the Hong Kong legislature, said that the territory has a history of working with U.S. law enforcement officials. "He won't find Hong Kong a safe harbor," Ip told the Times.

But Hong Kong university professor Simon Young told The Guardian that China would likely leave it to the Hong Kong courts to decide whether Snowden would be extradited.

In fact, according to GlobalPost, Snowden's choice of Hong Kong looks astute, because the high court of Hong Kong government has charged the government with putting a new extradition system in place, which could take some time. Until it does so, Hong Kong's extradition process is stuck in legal limbo, and no cases will likely be decided, according to Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.

8. U.S. Government Treatment Of Manning Might Safeguard Snowden.

In December, furthermore, a Hong Kong court ruled that no one can be extradited to a country where they might face cruel or unusual punishment, Patricia Ho, a lawyer at Daly & Associates, told GlobalPost. "The reason I think this is relevant," Ho said, "is because if you look at the case of Bradley Manning, during his detention period, he was found to have suffered cruel and degrading treatment. It was found by the UN special rapporteur on torture."

"I would imagine given the similarity in the cases that Snowden could easily say, 'Well, I fear that the same would happen to me,' and use that as a basis to claim protection in Hong Kong," she said. "If he does that I would say his chances of protection would be fair."

9. Snowden Missing As Of Monday.

As of Monday, however, Snowden reportedly checked out of the Hong Kong hotel where he was staying -- perhaps after being located by multiple news outlets -- and his whereabouts were unknown. It's not clear if he'd been interviewed by American officials, as they were seeking to do, or if he might have been detained by Hong Kong authorities.

About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz

Contributor

Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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