Edward Snowden, The Dark Prophet

He pulled off the year's most spectacular heist. Exiled from his country, the 30-year-old computer whiz has become the doomsayer of the information age

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Edward Snowden
Illustration by Jason Seiler for TIME

That is the thing that led him to break the law, the notion that mass surveillance undermines the foundations of private citizenship. In a way, it is the defining critique of the information age, in which data is increasingly the currency of power. The idea did not originate with Snowden, but no one has done more to advance it. “The effect has been transformative,” argues Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who has been helping Snowden from the confines of the Ecuadorean embassy in London. “We have shifted from a small group of experts understanding what was going on to broad public awareness of the reality of NSA mass surveillance.” If Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is the sunny pied piper of the new sharing economy, Snowden has become its doomsayer.

The Information Grid

When electronic surveillance began, with the invention of the telegraph and radio, the only way to record an intercept was with ink and paper. Now there are technologies that allow for the wholesale copying, sorting and storage of billions of records a day—everything that passes through a fiber-­optic cable, for instance, or gets beamed through the airwaves. By itself, this is a revolutionary development. But its real power comes from the way regular people have changed their behavior. In the 19th century, humans rarely produced electronic signals. Now almost every part of daily existence can cast off bits and bytes.

The cell phone in your pocket records your movements and stores that information with your service carrier. The e-mail, chat and text messages you create map your social relations and record your thoughts. Credit-card purchases show spending habits and tastes. Mass-transit databases note when you board subways and buses with fare cards. The search terms you enter into your ­laptop—preserved­ by Google in ways that can be used to identify your computer for a standard period of nine months—may tell more about your deepest desires than anything you would ever admit to a friend or lover.

Then there are the emerging technologies that will soon add even more information to the grid: The wearable-computing devices that monitor your pulse. The networked surveillance cameras rigged with facial-recognition software. The smart meters that record what time of night you turn out the lights. Retail companies like Nord­strom and Apple have debuted technologies that use your cell phones to track how long you linger before any single display. The possibilities are dizzying, and your information funds the whole enterprise. “Surveillance is the business model of the Internet,” explains Bruce Schneier, a security technologist who has access to some of the documents Snowden provided.

Snowden’s theft revealed a massive, secret U.S. national-security state—$52.6 billion a year, with more than 30,000 employees at the NSA alone—struggling to come to grips with this new surveillance potential in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Electronic intelligence historically focused on foreign governments and their public officials, but the hijackers who took down the World Trade Center were private individuals, born abroad and living in the homeland. So as the rubble still smoldered, the great arrays set up by the NSA turned inward and shifted focus. The subjects of collection grew to include patterns within entire populations and historical data that could literally retrace the steps of individuals years before they became suspects. The challenge, explained one NSA document made public by Snowden, was to “master global ­networks and handle previously unimagined volumes of raw data for both passive and active collection.”

So new databases were built, and ground was broken on a massive classified data center in the Utah desert that will need as much as 1.7 million gal. (6.4 million L) of water a day just to keep the computer servers cool. And the data was collected. Since 2006 the U.S. government has gathered and stored transaction records of phone calls made in America. For a time, the government sucked up similar metadata on Internet traffic as well. Cellular location data, mostly from foreign-owned phones, has also been collected, with some 5 billion records a day absorbed by databases that can later be used to reconstruct a person’s movements or find out who joins a meeting behind closed doors.

One NSA document released by Snowden estimated that 99% of the world’s Internet bandwidth in 2002 and 33% of the world’s phone calls in 2003 passed through the U.S., an accident of history that proved a gold mine to sift through, with or without the cooperation of American companies. The agency hacked overseas cables and satellites and surreptitiously sucked information transiting among foreign cloud servers of U.S. technology companies like Google and Yahoo. It harvested and stored hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant-messaging accounts on services like Yahoo and Facebook. A program called Dishfire sucked up years’ worth of text messages from around the world, and a database by the name of Tracfin captured credit-card transactions. “High performance computing systems must extract meaning from huge data sets and negate data encryption and computer access controls,” reads a 2007 classified NSA mission statement released by Snowden. “Fortunately, information management and mining is central to the Internet age.”

The NSA is not the only one playing the game. It just does it better, on a grander scale, than anyone else, at least so far. Russia and China have similar surveillance infrastructures, say current and former U.S. officials, and petty dictatorships the world over have been buying their ­technology on the open market. When rebels overthrew Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, they found a device from the French company Amesys that allowed the dictator to gather up and search in bulk the Internet traffic generated by his people. No Libyan activist had been safe to send an unencrypted e-mail or post a Facebook comment. The company’s sales pitch, later leaked to WikiLeaks, began with a slide that read, “From lawful to massive interception.”

Privacy Protections

With all this information now public, the important questions are easy to spot: What should distinguish democratic governments from totalitarian ones in an era of mass surveillance? Are privacy protections a human right or just a convenience of nationality? Can the massive U.S. ­national-security apparatus be trusted to make the right choices in secret when the next crisis comes? Even President Obama encourages the conversation as he continues to seek Snowden’s imprisonment. “I think it’s healthy for our democracy,” he said just weeks before the White House refused to confirm or deny its role in rerouting the plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales after a false rumor that Snowden was on board.

In an interview with Time conducted via e-mail in early December, Snowden ­explained his answers to those big questions, even as he allowed for the fact that the U.S. public he sees himself serving may not ultimately agree. The privacy of regular citizens, he believes, is a universal right, and the dangers of mass surveillance litter the dark corners of the 20th century. “The NSA is surely not the Stasi,” he argued, in reference to the notorious East German security service, “but we should always remember that the danger to ­societies from security services is not that they will spontaneously decide to embrace mustache twirling and jackboots to bear us bodily into dark places, but that the slowly shifting foundation of policy will make it such that mustaches and jackboots are discovered to prove an operational advantage toward a necessary purpose.”

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