Last Saturday (August 15), US President Donald Trump said he was considering a pardon for Edward Snowden, former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, who exposed a surveillance programme under which the US government was collecting data on millions of people.
Trump has previously called Snowden a “traitor” and a “spy who should be executed”. In 2013, Trump tweeted, “ObamaCare is a disaster and Snowden is a spy who should be executed-but if he could reveal Obama’s records, I might become a major fan.”
Since he was charged in 2013, Snowden has been in exile in Russia. A pardon could mean he can finally return to the US.
Who is Edward Snowden, and what did he do?
In 2013, The Guardian broke the news that the NSA was collecting phone records of millions of Americans from telecom service provider Verizon. It was further revealed that the intelligence agency was tapping servers of Facebook, Google and Microsoft to track Americans’ online activities.
Subsequently, The Guardian revealed its source of information, and named Snowden as the whistle-blower who leaked information on these surveillance programmes.
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What was in the documents that Snowden leaked?
The documents leaked by Snowden showed the NSA and its counterpart in the UK, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), had found ways to bypass the encryption offered to consumers by various companies on the Internet.
The NSA’s ability to decipher the data of millions of Americans was one of its closest-guarded secrets. Knowledge of this was restricted to those who were a part of a highly classified programme, called Bullrun.
The surveillance programme was not only limited to ordinary American citizens, but also foreign leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In 2013, Snowden was charged with theft of US government property and unauthorised communication of national defence information, in violating of the 1917 Espionage Act, and providing classified information to The Guardian and The Washington Post.
The leaks had triggered a debate on surveillance and privacy. While critics accused Snowden of treason, his supporters, including privacy activists, lauded him for releasing the documents.
In 2019, a lawsuit was filed against him by the US for publishing a book, titled ‘Permanent Record’, which was in violation of the non-disclosure agreements he had signed with the NSA and CIA. The lawsuit alleged Snowden published the book without submitting it to agencies for pre-publication review, in violation of his agreements with the two agencies.
What kind of information were the intelligence agencies able to access?
According to a report in The New York Times, the data intelligence agencies were able to access included sensitive information “like trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world, the documents show.”
In an interview Snowden gave to The Guardian in 2014, he said through the arrangement between the NSA and private Internet companies, such as Facebook, the agency was able to get copies of one’s Facebook messages, Skype conversations and Gmail inboxes.
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