30-year-old American Edward Snowden, a contract employee at the National Security Agency, is the whistleblower behind significant revelations that surfaced in June 2013 about the US government's top secret, extensive domestic surveillance programmes. Snowden flew to Hong Kong from Hawaii in May 2013, and supplied confidential US government documents to media outlets including the Guardian.
Technology and the danger to our privacy and freedoms
Edward Snowden contends that his mission to get the world talking about the scale of American and British government surveillance has been accomplished. Ending last year with media interviews after six months of revelations about spying programmes, the former US intelligence agency contractor was clearly pleased with his efforts, a smile on his face during a brief televised Christmas message aired in Britain. But as satisfied as he may have seemed, the debate is still in its infancy while his own fate is less than certain. As he languishes in Russia awaiting hoped-for exile elsewhere, technologies that have not been part of the discussion are being used to infringe privacy.
Snowden revealed the extent and nature of spying operations by detailing programmes and leaking classified documents. That the US was spying on people and companies around the world in its quest to prevent terrorist attacks was not shocking; what caused surprise was the scale of the collection of communications data. The public outcry over the lack of transparency prompted US President Barack Obama to promise better oversight and American courts have started handling challenges to surveillance processes on grounds of civil rights violations. Discussion of matters previously shrouded in secrecy is cause to claim a measure of success.
It is too early to crow victory, though. Snowden has been charged with espionage and refuses to return to face what he contends would be an unfair trial. Debate continues to rage as to whether he is a traitor or patriot. Given that he did not betray any military secrets and has sparked a wider national debate about whether surveillance has breached basic privacy and freedoms, he is seen by many people as having rendered a service to his nation - a patriot, in fact. This newspaper for one would welcome a presidential pardon for him.
Meanwhile, Snowden's fate rests in his own hands and, increasingly, every step and move we make is being recorded. The cameras, sound recorders and activity trackers have benefits, especially in cases of crime and to decide liability, although they can also have downsides. While Snowden has highlighted what spying agencies are up to, the discussion has to also include what images and information governments, companies and individuals are collecting. Technology makes our lives easier, but we also have to make sure it does not unknowingly erode our privacy and freedoms.