The Geeky Whistleblower
The story of one man's answer to the call of his consience.
Sometime back in 2012, Edward was sitting with his senior colleagues at the National Security Agency HQ at Fort Meade in the US. They were exploring the data that XKEYSCORE was throwing up. XKEYSCORE is a mass surveillance program used by the NSA and CIA to track the minutest information of citizens across the globe. Private videos to snippets of conversations, chat messages to mails, any transaction - it has the capacity to track, collect and store every living moment of an unsuspecting citizens life. Without anyone’s consent.
The senior colleague suddenly started flicking random nude pictures of women obtained from mobile phones being tracked and started rating them. Disgust and hatred welled up inside Edward. It was in one of those moments that he decided on the journey he would embark upon.
In 2013, Edward was posted as the sole system administrator for the NSA base in Hawaii. Located beneath vast pineapple farms, the Hawaiian hub was their largest conduit for the surveillance info from all over the world. Edward was privy to and had access to every piece of information that was being collected and misused under the garb of national security and counter terrorism initiatives post 9/11. Head honchos at NSA and CIA cared a hoot for violating the fundamental right to privacy of citizens and the allegations levelled against them.
Meanwhile, an automated tool that Edward developed collated all this vast information into a daily reader board that was flashed to all the hubs within the intelligence community. He named it Heartbeat. It became quite popular within the NSA and earned him a lot of name. Heartbeat would eventually become the main source of all the info that Edward started filing away, without raising any suspicion.
First, he downloaded and organised the information into old, discarded junk desktops in his office. Then he transferred it into small SD cards that he stuck on to the blocks of Rubiks’ cubes to avoid detection as he carried them out of the building. And finally stored all of it in external servers under powerful encryption.
On June 3rd 2013, he finally went live from Hong Kong: ‘Hi! My name is Edward Snowden. I am 29 years old and I work with the NSA..’. His stunning revelations on the system of mass surveillance, on how the personal data of every American citizen was being collected and misused by the intelligence community stunned and shocked the world. Mayhem ensued. NSA & CIA were on fire.
A few days later, as he landed in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport to catch a connecting flight that would take him to a safe haven in Quito, Equador, the US government cancels his passport and invalidates his travel. After 40 days of waiting in the airport, he is granted asylum in Russia and allowed to stay in Moscow. He continues to lead a secretive life there for the last 8 years.
Edward Snowden’s story is about one conscientious man turning a whistleblower against the most powerful security establishment in the world. He ruthlessly lived out the call of his conscience to prove that mass surveillance existed in real. His disclosures made the system known to every citizen and ensured it does not get ignored.
The fallouts were massive. Congress launched investigations into NSA abuses and proved that the agency had repeatedly lied under oath. In 2015, the USA Freedom Act was passed which now prohibits the bulk collection of American phone records. Every tech giant started taking encryption very seriously from 2013. GDPR came into force in 2016. And lot more.
For the first time since the end of WW2, liberal democratic governments were forced to discuss privacy as the natural inborn right of every human being.
‘Ultimately, saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. Or that you don’t care about freedom of the press because you don’t like to read. Or that you don’t care about freedom of religion because you don’t believe in God. Or that you don’t care about the freedom to peaceably assemble because you’re a lazy, antisocial agoraphobe. Just because this or that freedom might not have meaning to you today doesn’t mean that it doesn’t or won’t have meaning tomorrow..’
PS: Since 2013, Snowden has been involved in creation of a number of encrypted tools for which there was a sudden demand. One such encryption and calling platform that he financially supported through his work with the ‘Freedom of the Press Foundation’ (FPF) has suddenly become an overnight sensation in the last few weeks.
You have heard of Signal, haven’t you?
I’ve been on a short hiatus. And while I was away, the news that dominated was the exodus from Whatsapp and the whole debate on privacy.
And that’s when I picked up ‘Permanent Record’, the memoir by Edward Snowden. It is a fascintaing read - recounts his story in a very self effacing manner - his growing up years and key influences - great details on the Intelligence Community and finally the way he did it. And why he chose do what he did. All that I wrote is gleaned from the book.
The jury will always be out on the manner in which he exposed the whole system. But there was no other for what he had set out to do.
Really a good one sir. More then intelligence, ethics is needed in every walk of life.