An (at the time unnamed) whistleblower has rocked the world by disclosing documents that seemingly prove that Verizon (and possibly other telecom providers) is forced to share metadata on all the phone calls its users make with the NSA, then followed it with an even bigger revelation: the NSA has direct access to the servers - and the data contained on them - of a host of big U.S. Internet companies, including Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Apple, AOL, YouTube, Skype and PalTalk, via a program dubbed PRISM.
The U.S. government reacted with denials about the accuracy of the stories, explanations that what the NSA was doing was legal, they weren't spying on American citizens, that they collected only metadata (The New Yorker explains what can be gleaned from it), and the president defended the surveillance of Americans' phone and internet activity as necessary to protect the U.S.
Companies accused of participating in the PRISM program issued a series of similarly worded denials (as pointed out by security and privacy researcher Chris Soghoian), and Twitter was praised for not giving in to the government's demands.
But over the weekend, the bombs kept dropping: the NSA has developed a tool for recording and analyzing where the intelligence it collects comes from, U.S. president Obama ordered intelligence officials to make a list of potential overseas targets for U.S. cyber-attacks, and then, finally, the whistleblower revealed himself to the public.
In an in-depth interview given to The Guardian's journalists, 29-year-old Edward Snowden, a former CIA and Booz Allen Hamilton employee who worked on several contracts for the NSA, explained his reasons for becoming a whistleblower.
In short, he did it because he wanted to "inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them," and couldn't "in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."
He stated that he was aware that he will be demonized and likely prosecuted by the U.S. government, and that he was prepared for it. He is currently located in Hong Kong, where the traveled to before all the revelations in order to prevent being locked up as long as possible. He has hopes of being granted asylum to a country that would not extradite him to the U.S., but is aware that things might not end up like that.
Finally, he said that he outed himself because given the situation, he had no hope of remaining anonymous for long, but that he didn't want the story to become about him. "I want it to be about what the US government is doing."
Unfortunately, since that moment on, the story became largely about him, but The Guardian reporter Glenn Greewald says that they will be "putting the focus back where it belongs very shortly: on the conduct of the US Government," hinting perhaps at more upcoming explosive revelations.
The debate on whether Snowden should be considered a traitor or a hero has already started in the U.S. and around the world. Bruce Schneier says Snowden is an "American hero", and many others agree. On the other hand, there are also those who would like to see him extradited and tried for what he has done.
Whether Snowden will ultimately be charged or not, someone has already started a petition to for the Obama administration to issue a "full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes he has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs."
In the meantime, people are also discussing whether his choice to go to Hong Kong was foolish or not, or even a sign of his true allegiance, as the timing of his revelations has made an impact on the first meeting between U.S. president Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping.
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