Edward Snowden: The Inside Scoop On The World’s Most Infamous Whistleblower

Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower and political exile, circa June 6, 2013 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the world today, privacy is highly valued. People use passwords to unlock mobile phones and laptops, and many people live in neighborhoods that are gated communities. Many Americans take their privacy for granted, and they do not think about how the United States government handles their sensitive information. Edward Snowden was the hero that U.S. citizens never knew they needed.

In his early twenties, Snowden began working for the Central Intelligence Agency as a telecommunications support officer. He enjoyed relative success as he spent his time at the CIA station in Geneva, protecting the security of the CIA’s computer systems. However, as Snowden continued to savor his prosperity, the unexpected happened. He lost $20,000 in one month in his options speculations, an amount that “represented almost a third of his annual salary.”1 As he often did, Snowden vented on the website Ars Technica, “a publication devoted to technology.”2 He criticized those who questioned his financial judgment and blamed his losses on government officials. As his anger continued to increase, suspicion concurrently grew that Snowden had attempted to break into classified computer files for which he did not have clearance. As a result, Snowden underwent a two-year evaluation and took a polygraph test. The results were concerning, and Snowden’s superior at the CIA placed a derogatory comment in his file.3

To expand, Snowden legally had the right to use the CIA’s computer system in his employment as a communications officer. However, he threatened the security of the system by adding code to it in an attempt to break into classified computer files. As a result, Snowden was threatened with a punitive investigation. Snowden accredited the derogatory comment in his file to the incompetence, blindness, and errors of his superiors. If Snowden was investigated, he would lose his security clearance with the CIA temporarily. With little to no choice left to make, Snowden avoided the investigation by resigning from the CIA and applying to a private subsidiary of the Dell Computer Company.4

Unknowingly, Snowden wanted to work for a company that was just beginning to toy with managing governmental computer systems. The National Security Agency had given the task of rearranging the backup systems at its regional bases to Dell. The NSA’s request created a lot of demand for independent contractors. An independent contractor is “a person or entity contracted to perform work or provide service to another entity as a non-employee.”5 Snowden applied to work at the NSA regional base in Japan. A qualification that set Snowden apart from other candidates and allowed him to start working immediately was his top secret clearance from the CIA. Snowden joined Dell swiftly and quietly; the CIA could not inform Dell or the NSA about their security concerns without violating government privacy regulations.6

After having several jobs at Dell, Snowden became a system administrator. This position gave him direct access to the NSA’s computers. Snowden’s very monotonous job involved sitting in front of a computer all day to make sure that there were no complications in the transfer of NSA files from Maryland to Japan. Eventually, Snowden claimed to have found a major flaw. This defect, according to Snowden, allowed a “rogue system administrator in Japan (to) steal secret data without anyone else’s realizing that it had been stolen.”7

Seal of the National Security Agency. Edward Snowden worked for the Agency from 2009-2013 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While still on Dell’s payroll, Snowden made a ten day trip to India. Claiming to be “working at the US embassy,” Snowden was actually attending Koenig Solutions, which was a school that provided classes on programming and computer hacking. Snowden claimed to have only taken classes in programming. However, school records indicated that he had paid for a course called “Ethical Hacking.” This course taught Snowden the fundamentals of illicit hacking, from breaking into files to capturing the passwords of others. This course also taught Snowden about tools such as SpyEye and Zeus, which hackers use to bypass security systems. As Snowden flew back to Japan, he was well prepared to hack into the NSA’s computer systems, if he ever felt the need to do so.8

As Snowden’s contract in Japan neared its end, Dell offered him a job in the United States. He worked in Annapolis, solving problems for corporate clients at Dell headquarters. As time went on, Snowden tried unsuccessfully to inform NSA officials of the “illicit surveillance” of citizens by the United States government. According to Snowden, none of the NSA officials he spoke to took any action to stop these surveillance practices. In an interview with The Guardian, Snowden said: “They [the NSA] are intent on making every conversation and every form of behavior in the world known to them.” In addition, Snowden criticized his own employer on Ars Technica. Railing against the apparent alliance between corporate America and the intelligence community, Snowden did not hold back in his criticism of Dell. He wrote: “It really concerns me how little this sort of corporate behavior bothers those outside of technology circles. (Corporate assistance to U.S. intelligence) was entirely within our control to stop.”9

Soon after Snowden vented on the internet about his increasing frustrations, he dodged a bullet that could have ended his career. Snowden’s security clearance with the CIA ran out, so he had to apply for a new one. In the late 1990’s the Clinton administration cut the size of the government by handing the execution of tasks that could be done more efficiently by for-profit companies to said companies. In effect, the Clinton administration privatized these tasks. U.S. Investigations Services, owned by the private equity fund Carlyle Group, won the contract to administer NSA background checks. Eventually, the Carlyle Group sold its rights to a different financial group, Providence Equity Partners. Providence Equity Partners measured their success by how much profit they made. In order to get as much profit as they could from administering these background checks, U.S. Investigations Services had to cut the amount of time they used for each background check. This was because they would not make more money if they held prolonged investigations. As a result, many background checks were rushed and incomplete. The CIA did not share its files with private companies such as Providence Equity Partners. Therefore, the U.S. Investigations Services did not have access to Snowden’s CIA files. All of Snowden’s previous grievances and the threatened investigation from his time at the CIA went undetected. Snowden was quickly given a new security clearance and was able to continue working for Dell without raising any alarms.10

Shortly after receiving his new security clearance, Snowden was offered a new position at the NSA’s Kunia regional base in Hawaii. There, Snowden was a system administrator on the NSA’s backup system. At the time, the NSA was still in the process of upgrading its security protocols to ones that would inspect suspicious activity as anomalies occurred. Similar to Snowden’s job in Japan, he was able to work alone in Hawaii. This lack of supervision provided ample chances for system administrators like Snowden to steal documents if they so desired.11

Part of Snowden’s job was transferring files held at Fort Meade to backup computers in Hawaii. Snowden was well aware of the opportunities he had to steal files as a system administrator, as Hawaii did not audit the movement of documents from one location to another. This lack of an auditing system allowed Snowden to copy classified data to a thumb drive anonymously. Many of the documents Snowden copied were on the NSANet, a database that held NSA, CIA, and Pentagon secrets. Snowden acted illicitly in order to gain leverage over the NSA, in an attempt to avoid an approaching “dark future.” This “dark future,” according to Snowden, was a future in which the elites know everything about United States citizens. In order to avoid the “dark future,” a U.S. citizen would have to gather information about the elites. Snowden was in a position to do just that as a system administrator with a sensitive compartmented information clearance and a pass into an NSA regional base.12

Eventually, Snowden quit his job in Hawaii and became an analyst for the NSA’s highly sensitive National Threat Operations Center. With his scorn for the way the U.S. government handled national security at a peak, Snowden prepared to carry out espionage. Never intending to work at the National Threat Operations Center for long, Snowden fabricated an excuse to take a medical leave of absence. Claiming to suffer from epilepsy, Snowden was granted time off a month in advance. Over the course of four weeks, Snowden pulled off an elaborate heist that gave him access to the NSA’s most closely guarded secrets.13

First, Snowden had to get the passwords to up to twenty-four compartments at the National Threat Operations Center. Doing so was a huge risk, as intelligence professionals who worked for the NSA were forbidden to share their passwords to unauthorized parties and were required to report anyone who asked for their passwords. Somehow, Snowden was able to get these twenty-four passwords, giving him access to the United States’ most closely protected intelligence secrets. Next, Snowden used pre-programmed robotic spiders to comb through over one million documents. These spiders sifted through every single document, highlighting files that Snowden deemed important to his mission. After the spiders concluded their search, Snowden had to find a way to transfer the stolen files to a computer with an opened USB port. Though difficult, Snowden eventually succeeded in downloading hundreds of thousands of potentially harmful documents to an unsealed computer. At the conclusion of his operation, Snowden mobilized his documents by transferring everything on the computer to thumb drives. By this time, Snowden was ready to take his “medical leave,” which he did the following day.14

Snowden departed Honolulu for Hong Kong, taking numerous NSA secrets with him. As Snowden planned a way to release the information he had to the public, he attempted to set up meetings with several journalists. Ultimately, Laura Poitras and The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald agreed to meet Snowden in his hotel room. There, Snowden was interviewed about his shocking discoveries. With the data Snowden gave them both on and off camera, Greenwald was able to pen the article that would forever change the American public’s understanding of the way the U.S. government handles their private information. The article Greenwald published was headlined “NSA Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily.” The sub-title read “Exclusive: Top secret court order requiring Verizon to hand over all call data shows scale of domestic surveillance under Obama.” Hours later, a second story was published by The Washington Post. This story detailed the PRISM program, a joint FBI-NSA-CIA operation that gathered data on not only foreign terrorists but also on American citizens.15

Edward Snowden supporters in Hong Kong. Locals praised Snowden for his actions since they were trying to maintain Hong Kong’s autonomy from China, circa June 15, 2013 | Courtesy of Wikipedia

In the aftermath of the publication of these stories, Snowden desired to reveal himself as the informant before the U.S. government started searching for the culprit. To accomplish this, Snowden was interviewed by Glenn Greenwald in a twelve minute video titled “Whistleblower.” In the video, Snowden described how the NSA was watching U.S. citizens. After filming concluded, Snowden insisted on the immediate airing of the self-incriminating video, saying “I want to identify myself as the person behind these disclosures.” The video was released with a Guardian story titled “Edward Snowden: The Whistleblower Behind the NSA Surveillance Revelations.”16

The United States Department of Justice charged Snowden with espionage, forcing him to ask for haven in China, North Korea, and Russia. Snowden eventually found asylum in Russia, a country that was not “intimidated by the threats of reprisals by the United States.” To this day, Snowden resides in Moscow.17

Protestors rally against NSA surveillance. The information Edward Snowden leaked forever changed the way global citizens feel and think about their privacy, by Fibonacci Blue, circa June 18, 2013 | Courtesy of Flickr

Snowden’s revelations about U.S. intelligence secrets caused many different reactions among both politicians and citizens. President Obama, leaders of both houses of Congress, and many citizens roundly denounced Snowden for betraying American secrets. In contrast, some U.S. citizens praised Snowden for his disclosures. In the end, Snowden’s actions caused many people to become angry about domestic surveillance. People began to question their government’s behavior instead of blindly being victims to its twisted policies. Facing pressure from the general public, the NSA and U.S. government were forced to re-evaluate the ways they ensured the security of the American people. Edward Snowden was able to bring the government to its knees from the inside, willingly executing an elaborate heist for the sake of the enlightenment of the American people.18

  1. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 24.
  2. Ars Technica, last modified 2019, https://arstechnica.com/.
  3. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 23-25.
  4. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 26-29.
  5. Will Kenton,  “Independent Contractor,” Investopedia (blog) March 12, 2019. Accessed March 25, 2019. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/i/independent-contractor.asp.
  6. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 29-30.
  7. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 32.
  8. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 33.
  9. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 33-35.
  10. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 35-36.
  11. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 36.
  12. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 44-47.
  13. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 78-79.
  14. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 79-80.
  15. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 81-94.
  16. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 94-95.
  17. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 107.
  18. Edward J. Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 125-126.

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52 Responses

  1. I recently watched a Joe Rogan podcast in which Snowden was the guest. The crazy part is Snowden is in a virtual call with Rogan and reveals he has to live a life of incognito routines and complete privacy to avoid any dangers to himself. He truly put all at risk in order for the public to see the government’s true intentions with public data and the companies who go hand to hand with federal organizations.

  2. When Edward Snowden was a name always in the news I was too young to really understand what he had done, and the reasons for doing so. Today knowing what exactly he did, and why he did what he did makes me question my own security and privacy, even in my own home. The power that Snowden held is actually quite frightening as well, in the wrong hands that information could’ve been used for malicious intent. In my opinion Snowden is a true modern American hero.

  3. Edward Snowden is a popular name amongst our generation, a man who ‘snitched’ on the government for the sake of our rights as Americans. Thanks to Snowden, people are more aware of what they do online and how they do it, although if anything changed, their technology improved and just managed better stalking abilities. Some new computers even have sliders across their camera, to cover them when not in use, or people even place stickers over them; although that’s one way to block them out, thanks to Snowden, we know they’re in our phone calls, face times, emails and anything one can think of.

  4. Back home when I hesrd about this story it was amazing and interesting. I say it is amazing because you don’t hear this stories very often and how a government like the US got “betrayed” and some of the major secrets have been revealed. Many people can see Snowden as an enemy because he betrayed the US and revealed something very confidential. But, others see him as a hero because he revealed some of the biggest secrets of what the government was hiding to the public.

  5. It’s hard to believe that sometimes traitors are hero’s and in this case, this traitor was a hero to many. He put his life on the line to spill the truth, and to the world he made them understand that not everything that they are told is true. Especially if that has to do with the government, because they are very protective over secret intelligence.

  6. I have heard of the infamous Edward Snowden, and his act on exposing some of the most classified information in the government to the citizens of America. He did something that was, in his hear the right thing, by letting the citizen of the United Stated know what the government has been doing behind their backs such as the government for eavesdropping on our phone calls. It is fascinating that this man was known as an American traitor, but also a Hero in the sense of him revealing some of the most classified information in America to the public. This article was well written and interesting to read more information of what happen to Snowden.

  7. It is good that this article was written on a modern subject that pertains to our everyday lives. I didn’t know some of the background about this story. This was a really interesting article about a subject that I wasn’t too familiar with. I enjoyed hearing about this subject on a deeper level. This article was written on a very intriguing subject. This was written very well and included many important facts that I didn’t know before. The article kept me interested all the way through its entirety.

  8. I thought it was very fascinating that this man was known as an American traitor, but also a Hero in the sense of him revealing some of the most classified information in America to the public. Their have always been questions of how much our government is really keeping an eye on us, and this goes to show, we are being watched even when we dont realize it.This is very awakening to some people but also calming to know our security has the access to catch many criminals using this technique.

  9. This was such a fascinating article with such detailed information. Snowden single handedly went after something he thought was right in his heart. He endured hardships as being let go from the NSA, losing money, switching jobs, and taking big risks that put his career and life at stake. He may be seen as a whistleblower to the United States government, but to the people of the world he is valued for his bravery for our security.

  10. I have heard bits and pieces of Edward Snowden’s story, this article was very interesting in showing his motives as well as the steps he took to pull of his heist. Many people give him praise for pulling back the curtain on big brother but personally I think both Snowden and the government were in the wrong, the government for eavesdropping on our phone calls and Snowden for the whole process he took in constructing his heist. What if someone else decides to follow in his foot steps but for more sinister purposes, the steps and skills Snowden used were dangerous because although he used them to warn the nation of what was going on, the same exact steps and skills can be used to destroy or manipulate the lives of many.

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