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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18 Comments

  • Wow great article! I had never heard of Edward Snowden, but now I feel that I owe him a thanks. Although I think it is unfortunate that Snowden had some serious consequences for his actions, I do not know what he expected to happen; although, I really do wish that his actions would’ve made the government reconsider their own. Aside from the righteousness behind his actions, I think he definitely deserves to be admired for his brilliance and talent.

  • I can’t even begin to imagine how different life would be if electronic devices didn’t have a way to prove that the person using the device is the owner. I love how this story begins with Snowden being looked into for suspicious activity with his employment with the CIA, but drove him to take classes on how to “ethically hack” into computer systems. It is crazy how the actions of one individual deeply affected the lives of others. I am glad that it was made clear to the public how the government was spying in on the digital lives of Americans.

  • The debate over whether Edward Snowden is a traitor, or a hero is one that I can’t imagine will ever come to an end. People on both sides of the debate have passionate feelings. I think you handled the topic very well. You presented us with the necessary background information and what Snowden himself went through prior to and during the release of the documents. Great job!

  • Reading this story was very intriguing and fascinating. I have heard of Edward Snowden and what he did, but I never knew the whole story. Ryan you did an amazing job telling his story and at no point did I think of stopping to read. It really kept my focus and I never knew he still resided in Russia. I think what Edward Snowden was brave. Brave for telling us what our our government was doing and just how much spying they were doing on us.

  • The Patriot Act was very controversial and I think that Snowden did well in informing the public. There was a lot that I didn’t understand from the article but only based off of my lack of knowledge about technology. I think that government often, every day really, hides things from the American people and I understand why Snowden is being punished. He knew exactly what would happen if he exposed the government but he took the chance and decided that it was more worth telling the story. I do appreciate the background information and think that this was a very interesting read.

  • I love the intro, just enough to grab the reader’s attention while remaining on topic. I also appreciate the author for choosing this topic as there has yet to be a article written on a similar subject(whether it be WikiLeaks or Julian Assange). I would have appreciated it if the article had used more sources or maybe wrapped up the ending with some revelent present-day events. Despite all of this, the article did what it was supposed to do: It engaged and fascinated.

  • This is an excellent article. It is not very common to find an article about Snowden before he revealed what he had discovered. He spent a lot of time gaining the knowledge he needed to be able to pull off what he did. He was trying to inform and protect the American people from their own government and was punished for that.

  • Every time I think of Snowden, I think of how similar it is to a spy movie. I remember when this was big news, and I am not surprised that he still resides within Russia. This story was extremely well written and I think you did a good job telling it. You were able to clearly talk about things that could potentially very confusing.

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