The visage of Edward Snowden looms large from a screen, beamed to an international audience while he rails against government intrusions on private lives, ironically from Russia, a country paradoxically on a crusade to curtail personal freedoms.
While many in the US government, including President Obama, predicted that Snowden would live his life there in ignominy and obscurity; that has been far from the reality. Not only has he not been incapacitated by his enforced exile, but while he may not exactly be relishing it, he has been nonetheless outspoken using his preferred technology – video conferencing
Through this medium he has not only spoken to audiences in countries as disparate as Italy and Ecuador, Norway and Australia, but he has managed to even penetrate US cyber audiences at Princeton and Stanford, and he has been able to finance his continuing crusade.
His effect on the US surveillance community is most apparent in the drama being played out now in Washington, as Congress debates changes in NSA surveillance program regarding bulk collection and storage of citizen’s phone data – a practice he disclosed almost two years ago. Furthermore, his disclosures have prompted tech companies to strengthen encryption (much to the chagrin of law enforcement) in order to guard users from the government excesses that he exposed.
So while, optimally, he would like to return to the US in a favorable plea bargaining arrangement, he is biding his time in Russia and remaining relevant, fittingly using technology “to defeat exile and participate in the(very) debate he started”, opined his lawyer, Ben Wizner of the ACLU.
American officials would like to downplay the Snowden impact, pointing out that of the thousands of documents he leaked, while it prompted fury from the Obama administration (and still does), only the first of his disclosed documents is being debated now in Congress.
They further suggest that his revelations went too fa r- beyond phone records and communications – teaching terrorists and other adversaries how to avoid eavesdropping detection. Some would even go so far as to blame him for the emergence and effectiveness of ISIS, empowering and emboldening them with leaked information. This view is espoused by the author of “The Great War of Our Time”, Michael J: Morell, though he offers scant evidence to support his thesis.
Snowden has proved very resilient over the past two years, vying with Pope Francis for Time magazine’s person of the year, and even being championed by some in Norway for the Nobel peace prize. But it has been his public persona and voice resonating via technology which is probably most gratifying and financially enriching to him. It certainly has been most effective.
At Princeton, in a law and public affairs forum, he addressed overflow crowds by video conference, an unusual occurrence for an indicted felon, but indicative of his rock-star status. “… the very size of the audience today indicates that Edward Snowden has done something very important, by disclosing information that alerted the public to what was being done in our name,” said Kim Lane Schepple, director of the program. He has financed his lifestyle with the fees from such appearances, typically about $10,000 per engagement.
The debate still rages, as people grapple with the notoriety of a person characterized as both traitor and hero. He told a Stanford audience that,
“It’s not about me. It’s about us. I’m not a hero. I’m not a traitor. I’m an ordinary American citizen like anyone else in the room.”
This self-deprecatory assessment by Edward Snowden belies the depth and breadth of the controversy he created two years ago, and will likely continue until he is permitted to return to the US with a prospect of a fair hearing over the charges leveled against him. Whatever you think of him, remember that there would be no public discussion regarding the Patriot Act and the contentious Section 215 without his actions.