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Edward Snowden: a whistleblower’s journey

Whistleblower Edward Snowden talking about the National Security Agency (NSA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), global surveillance programs, safety, spying, journalism, national security, GDPR and individual privacy at Websummit 2019 in Lisbon, Portugal. (Social Income via Unsplash)

After making headlines around the world, Edward Snowden has been living in Moscow as a refugee since 2013.

“I take the metro, live in a flat with my girlfriend and pay rent like everyone else,” he told Süddeutsche Zeitung in a rare interview in 2018. The former agent of the National Security Agency (NSA), the American intelligence service, explained that he had neither a telephone or a credit card and that he lived as discreetly as possible with his girlfriend, the acrobat Lindsay Mills. A baby boy was born in 2020.

As the son of civil servants, Snowden’s patriotism is his legacy. In his autobiography “Permanent Record“, he says he knows the preamble to the US Constitution by heart. As a teenager, mononucleosis prevented him from passing his baccalaureate. He has a passion for video games and digital technology. “The Internet was my tree house,” he writes. On the forums where he spends his days, he expresses right-wing ideas with a libertarian tendency that classify him rather on the Republican side. At 20, he supported the war in Iraq and joined the army. But he broke his legs in military training and returned to civilian life.

With his digital skills, he joined the CIA as a computer scientist, then worked for subcontractors of the NSA, the agency in charge of the security of government information systems. He lives in Hawaii, “a paradise” he writes in his autobiography, and earns a lot of money. It was then that he gained access to classified documents and understood the sprawling spying system set up by the American state. A shock when you cherish freedom of expression and respect for privacy. In the name of patriotism, he decides to denounce his government.

In 2012, the native of Elizabeth City (North Carolina) contacted, under the pseudonym “Citizen Four“, two leading figures in investigative journalism, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. He arranged to meet them in Hong Kong, promising unprecedented revelations about the American surveillance system. “Every border you cross, every purchase you make, every phone number you dial, every article you write, every website you visit is in the hands of a system with unlimited reach,” he writes to them. On 6 June 2013, his revelations made the front pages of the Guardian and the Washington Post.

At 29, he became a hunted man. In Hong Kong, he hid with undocumented migrants before fleeing to Latin America. Stuck in Moscow during a connecting flight, he lives for a month confined in the airport corridors. He then obtained the right to stay in Russia and applied for asylum in 21 countries, but to no avail. Since 2020, Snowden has had permanent residence status in Russia. He is still wanted for “espionage” in his country, where he faces up to 30 years in prison. He has no regrets: “I knew the risks, I know I would do it again”.

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