Edward Snowden occupies a strange place, culturally, right now. At the same time that Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch and Salil Shetty of Amnesty International are calling for him to be pardoned in a New York Times op-ed where they call his actions a “public service,” a summary report from a two-year House intelligence committee investigation has dismissed the idea that he is a “whistleblower” and (perhaps unsurprisingly) painted him as a “disgruntled employee.” This all as a movie about his life has been made with Oliver Stone, an Oscar-winning director, at the wheel. The result of all of this is (and it’s fair to assume that the concerted campaign to get him a pardon and the release of the film are, at least, loosely connected) that, yet again, Edward Snowden’s name can’t help but find its way into the headlines.
Snowden, who is living in exile in Russia presently, is doubtlessly a symbol. His face turns up in street art and on items as diverse as pins, lego figures, statues, shirts, and prayer candles. If you want to apply a simple comparison, he’s the Che Guevara of the cyber set; a revolutionary that is, rightly or wrongly, idolized by a growing flock with over 2.35 million followers on Twitter. In the halls of power, there’s a little less love and affection, but his name can still be thrown about with pleasure or disgust when talking about national security. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump want to bring him to justice. Former candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, wants to find a way for Snowden to avoid a long prison sentence.
Is he a patriot or a traitor? That’s a question that a lot of people have an opinion about, and that’s before people flock to see the movie and become insta-experts. Patriot or traitor, the one undeniable fact is Edward Snowden has become the story, but what does that say about his actions and about us?
Infamous Before Famous
The fascination with Snowden is justified, to some degree. In the summer of 2013, Snowden, a former NSA employee, disclosed thousands of classified documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill. He then helped curate them to find the most important information that they felt the public needed to know. Among the revelations was PRISM, a surveillance program that captured personal data from millions of Americans. In theory, the NSA wasn’t supposed to be surveilling Americans at all, as they needed at least “51% confidence” that the person they were surveilling was a foreign national. Other revelations included reports that the NSA was watching foreign leaders such as German chancellor Angela Merkel and even the Pope and that there have been instances of workers who stalked ex-lovers. Snowden also accused the NSA of abusing its power to riffle through nude selfies.
The sheer enormity of all of this was, and remains, troubling. Snowden laid bare an entire government infrastructure that most of the world had no idea existed, that had in effect no accountability to American courts or law, and that was paid for by government tax dollars.
The full fallout of the PRISM revelations is arguably still unfolding. A few years later, Apple fought the FBI’s efforts to open a back door into their products in an effort to protect the privacy of innocent civilians. Snowden put privacy, security, and encryption on everyone’s lips, and made everyone ask how much we’d given up in the name of convenience and security. Journalist Jay Rosen summed it up by coining the term, The Snowden Effect:
Beyond this, there is what he set in motion by taking that action. Congress and other governments begin talking in public about things they had previously kept hidden. Companies have to explain some of their dealings with the state. Journalists who were not a party to the transaction with Snowden start digging and adding background. Debates spring to life that had been necessary but missing before the leaks. The result is that we know much more about the surveillance state than we did before. Some of the opacity around it lifts. This is the Snowden effect.
It helped that Snowden’s tale was to some degree the stuff of a classic spy drama. If it weren’t a true story, one could imagine a novelist spinning it out on the page. But the enormity of the act is, more often than not, eclipsed by the man himself.
The Making Of An Idol
It’s fair to say that human nature has played a role in Snowden’s reluctant celebrity. Part of it is inherent to the media: Journalism may be focused on facts, but media, by and large, is obsessed with narratives and sides. Talk shows don’t thrive on shades of gray, but rather, they are powered by for or against, pro or con. Another problem is that talking about Snowden is easier than talking about what he revealed. The documents he disclosed are shrouded in an information war, a murky reality where questions of liberty have been poorly considered and an American intelligence agency spied on the taxpayers funding it with no accountability. It’s much easier, and less controversial, to talk about Snowden instead, and that’s exactly what has happened.