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

From Russia, Snowden does not defend every story that has been written, but he says he tried to design his actions to ­ensure that he was not the ultimate arbiter of what should and should not become public. “There have of course been some stories where my calculation of what is not public interest differs from that of reporters, but it is for this precise reason that publication decisions were entrusted to journalists and their editors,” he told Time. “I recognize I have clear biases influencing my judgment.”

That question of judgment is at the heart of the issues Snowden has raised. Polls still show Americans largely conflicted about the programs that have been revealed. Since the disclosures, a majority of Americans say they believe their privacy rights have been violated. But polls also show continued willingness to give up limited amounts of privacy as part of efforts to combat terrorism.

The most striking numbers show a generation gap in the way people think about Snowden. Just 35% of Americans ages 18 to 30 say Snowden should be charged with a crime, compared with 57% of those 30 and older, according to a November poll by the Washington Post and ABC News. And 56% of young adults say he did the “right thing,” compared with 32% of their elders. Younger people, who are moving away from Facebook and embracing technologies like Snapchat, which destroys messages after a few seconds, have also been shown to spend far more time than their elders tightening privacy settings on phones and apps. “Snowden is an effect, not a cause,” says General Michael Hayden, a recently retired director of both the NSA and CIA. “This new generation has a different take on where the appropriate line is.”

The shifts could have far greater implications than just what apps people choose for their smartphones. Historically, the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which offers no protections for non­citizens outside the country, has been the source of privacy protections under U.S. law. But the rhetoric now coming from European governments and even senior officials of the Obama Administration points to broader, as yet undefined rights, which several countries are now seeking to codify in ­international law at the U.N. “We must use the unprecedented power that technology affords us responsibly, while respecting the values of privacy, government transparency and accountability that all people share,” said National Security Adviser Susan Rice in a December speech.

Growing Up Online

Snowden dropped out of high school and got a GED.

Arundel Schools / Splash News / Corbis

Snowden dropped out of high school and got a GED.

The fourth American to attend Snowden’s October awards ceremony was Thomas Drake, who, like Snowden, was a veteran of the NSA and a former contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton. For years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Drake sounded alarm bells with Congress and the military about the NSA’s behavior, eventually deciding to give unclassified information about certain programs to a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. For this, he was charged under the Espionage Act on flimsy ­charges that fell apart in court but still caused Drake years of hardship. When the Americans walked in for dinner in Moscow, ­McGovern remembers that Snowden looked past him and focused on Drake, whom Snowden had never met before but had long regarded as a role model. “I was an inspiration to him,” Drake acknowledges. “He represents, for me, the future.”

Like Snowden, Drake grew up online, living his life inside the nascent Internet, finding friendships and forming an identity. His first computer, in the 1980s, was an Atari 8-bit. “I lived a double life, the virtual life in this digital space, in this transnational space,” says Drake, who is now 56. “It was unbelievable, this culture of sharing information.”

For Snowden, a high school dropout with a GED who grew up just miles from the NSA’s headquarters in Maryland, the Internet was also always a source of identity. His father, a Coast Guard officer, and his mother, a clerk in federal court, separated when he was young. As a teen, he spent years playing games online. As a young CIA employee in Switzerland, he vented and socialized regularly on anonymous chat boards. In this virtual space, national borders mattered less, and electronic privacy mattered more. By the time he had risen to become a senior technical consultant for the CIA, working as a Dell contractor, those values remained. “The one thing you resisted was this authoritarian power that wanted to own you,” says Drake, who will quote Star Trek and Tron to explain his values. “I was with the user.”

At some point in the coming months or years, Snowden’s fate will be decided. It is not clear if his asylum in Russia will be renewed. He continues to receive financial support from abroad, and a team of lawyers around the world is working on his behalf, pursuing other asylum applications and waiting on offers of negotiation from the U.S. authorities. Though the Department of Justice has promised not to apply the death penalty, no other offers of leniency have been forthcoming.

As the dinner wound down, ­Harrison, Snowden’s WikiLeaks adviser, explained to the group why she had put her life in legal jeopardy to help Snowden. “There needs to be another narrative,” she said in reference to Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army private formerly known as Bradley, who leaked massive amounts of documents and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. “There needs to be a happy ending. People need to see that you can do this and be safe.”

Snowden, a libertarian activist who gave up his freedom only to live at the whim of an authoritarian state, has not fully succeeded in that regard. But he will not be the last of his kind, either. Both Assange and Laura Poitras, one of the first journalists Snowden contacted, say his efforts have already emboldened other leakers. “What Snowden did was really empowering,” says Poitras. “I mean, think of all the people who have security clearance. There are hundreds of thousands, millions of them. They see that this is really a historic moment, and they are starting to question their belief in the job they were asked to do.”

It is an odd corollary to this new era of mass surveillance: the same technologies that give states vast new powers increase the ability of individuals on the inside to resist. Those dynamics are fixed, a code that underpins the world we now inhabit. That is what Snowden ultimately realized and exploited, a matter of simple physics. His example is the most consequential and dramatic, but it is unlikely to be the last.

—with ­reporting by Simon Shuster/Berlin

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