Illustration by: Emily Lai

In June 2013, yet another mysterious three-letter organisation entered our collective consciousness. Unlike other famous organisations like the CIA, FBI, KGB, and CDC, the National Security Agency (NSA)’s sudden prominence was not due to movie directors looking for a quick buck. Instead, it became a household name after contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified information on mass surveillance programs to the world on the front pages of The Guardian and The Washington Post [1]. So who was Edward Snowden, what did he do, and why should we care now?

We live in a society. This means that although we have certain inherent rights and freedoms, reasonable restrictions sometimes need to be placed on them—hate speech laws, building codes, and speed limits are good examples of this. Furthermore, most people believe that the restrictions need to be proportionate, and normal people going about their daily lives should not be troubled by them. However, it was generally accepted by those working for the NSA—the US’ digital surveillance agency—that covert, indiscriminate, oversight-less, Orwellian mass surveillance was justified. Mass surveillance of not just US citizens, but the entire world [2].

Looking at his initial career choice, most people wouldn’t expect Snowden to later be branded as a traitor. He was a young, patriotic special forces trainee who left the army only after both his legs were broken. He then signed on with the CIA as a computer specialist but resigned shortly after because of moral objections. After that, he worked as a contractor for the NSA through Dell. There he conducted research on China’s mass surveillance, but soon became concerned that the US was engaging in the same behaviour on a much larger scale. Around this time, he began to raise concerns through official channels—concerns that went completely unheard. He then began downloading files, determined to reveal the NSA’s actions to the world [3].

In March 2013, James Clapper, who was in charge of overseeing the NSA, testified under oath that the NSA did not collect any data at all from Americans [4]. For Snowden, this was the last straw. He immediately quit his job at Dell and found another consulting job, where he could gather more evidence to expose the NSA. Two months later, he was on a plane to Hong Kong under the pretext of getting medical treatment. There, he met with several experienced journalists he had previously contacted over the internet, and fled to Russia shortly after [3]. The subsequent revelations, as we now know, were unprecedented. 

The world now knows that overstating the extent of the NSA’s snooping is near-impossible. Through a combination of international partners (primarily Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom), willingly cooperating companies, court orders, and hacking, the NSA collects all types of communications, industrial secrets, financial information, location information, internet activity—everything. Even though you would expect Americans to be the primary targets of American surveillance agencies, foreign citizens were targeted en masse due to their lack of protection under the US Constitution—in some countries, every phone call was recorded. Americans, Canadians, activists, companies, governments— no one was immune [5][6]. In a leaked document, the NSA listed its goals to “Collect it All,” “Process it All”, “Exploit it All”, “Partner it All”, “Sniff it All”, and eventually to “Know it All” [7].

On top of it all, the NSA had also developed numerous hacking tools to help them illegally break into systems, and a search engine called XKeyscore that allowed them to browse through someone’s entire digital presence—every analyst had the power to use or misuse this [8]. Some parts of the surveillance were legal—enabled by the infamous PATRIOT Act—and some were of questionable legality, but the vast majority of it was unquestionably illegal, unconstitutional, and in violation of international law [5][15]. The most important part was that it was unknown and unaccountable to the public. The only provisions for oversight were James Clapper—who we have already met above—and a rubber-stamp court that approved over 99% of requests [9]. Surely government officials would have thanked Snowden for doing his duty to “support and defend the Constitution”?

Not so. The reactions from government officials and the public differed in many ways. President Obama and other government officials immediately proclaimed Snowden a traitor, brought charges against him, tried to stop him from leaving Hong Kong, and put enormous pressure on other countries to deny him asylum. While the American public was deeply divided on the issue, a majority of Americans surveyed supported Snowden—in Canada and the rest of the world, a decisive majority of those polled supported Snowden [10]. Other whistleblowers who have since been vindicated saw how Snowden’s experiences parallelled their own and firmly supported Snowden as well [11].

It’s often necessary to break an unjust law to bring attention to an issue and eventually create change—people in history who have done this include Oskar Schindler, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Even though they were initially controversial, we now recognise that they were completely justified and wonder why none of their contemporaries did the same. We have a moral duty to refuse to obey unjust laws, as well as to speak out when we discover abuses of power—whether by the government or some other authority. Unlike other NSA employees who felt they should be above the law or were intimidated into silence, Snowden spoke out at great personal risk to himself. 

And it’s important to stress the full extent of the risk—the first charges brought against him carried a combined prison sentence of thirty years, and more charges were expected. He would be on the run from the most powerful country and intelligence agencies on the planet. In an anonymous interview, many powerful government officials fantasized about personally murdering him [12]. He expressed it best himself, saying “Everyone in the Intelligence Community is aware of what happens to people who report concerns about unlawful but authorized operations” [13]. We may not all have spoken out under the same circumstances, but we can support Edward Snowden and recognise him for what he is—definitely not a traitor, but a hero to all of us. 

Snowden has many critics, but many of the arguments against what he did purposely misrepresent the facts or are based on misconceptions. The most common argument is that he should return to the US and stand trial; that the justice system is just, and he should plead his case to a judge and jury. This argument overlooks the fact that he is charged under the Espionage Act, a relic from history that effectively stops the accused from defending themselves—in previous cases, whistleblowers were not allowed to explain their rationale or to mention the word “whistleblowing” [11].

Another argument is that the documents he took were not limited to those about mass surveillance, and Snowden intended to deliver the documents to Russia. He did take documents unrelated to mass surveillance, but he needed them to prove his credibility—without them, he would just be another conspiracy theorist. Additionally, only a few documents related to mass surveillance have been released after being checked over by journalists—the remaining ones are safely encrypted. The final common argument is that the information Snowden leaked harmed national security and helped terrorists—the US Congress was kind enough to release a report with twenty-one examples of how the information harmed national security, but they were all blacked out [14]. As for the terrorists, the NSA could only cite one example that was later found to be unrelated by a judge [15].

After the revelations, there were protests and petitions—including many in Canada—demanding governments to end illegal mass surveillance and cut ties with the NSA. World governments—including Canada—took swift action. Specifically, they legalised the surveillance after the public attention had died down [16]. Here in Canada, Bill C-51 gave CSIS (our intelligence agency) sweeping new powers [17].

Canadians often take pride in Canada’s [objective] superiority to America. It’s tempting to dismiss the NSA as an American problem and trust our government to respect our privacy. The truth is far more unsettling. The Canadian equivalent to the NSA is called the CSE, and it has even less oversight than the NSA—it’s regularly found to be violating our rights, and also helps the NSA around the world [18]. The Bill C-51 that I mentioned above was the Canadian equivalent to the PATRIOT Act, trading away our rights for “national security” [17].

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We live in a democratic society, and there are countless ways we can fight back against the ongoing erosion of our rights. Write an email—or a letter that can’t be intercepted—to your Member of Parliament [19]. Find and attend protests against mass surveillance. Learn how to protect your digital privacy [20]. Support charities like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Learn about where the political parties stand on these issues and vote when you’re able to. Above all, stay informed about the issues that affect us all—through The Reckoner.




[3] Permanent Record, Edward Snowden (Book)




[7] No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald (Book)