Edward Snowden: Whistleblower Reveals Mass Surveillance

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Permanent Record" by Edward Snowden. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Who is Edward Snowden the whistleblower? What did Snowden share? What resulted from the Snowden whistleblowing event?

Edward Snowden is a whistleblower who revealed the existence of STELLARWIND, the US government’s mass surveillance program.

Learn more about Edward Snowden, whistleblower and former government employee with a high security clearance.

Edward Snowden: Whistleblower Starts as a CIA Contractor

Before he became Edward Snowden, whistleblower, Ed was a technologist. Ed’s first job as a technologist was for a company called COMSO that contracted services to the CIA. (Intelligence agencies rely so heavily on contracting that it’s easier to work for them as a contractor than as an employee.) Ed spent the next few years working at a variety of positions for the CIA and NSA in the US, Geneva, and Tokyo. Because Ed worked with computer systems, he had top secret security clearance and access to more documents than most individuals would, even those higher up in the agency.

Whistleblowing Took Time to Prepare

When Ed was in Tokyo, three important things happened:

  • Ed was asked to speak about China’s surveillance of its citizens at a conference. As Ed researched China, he learned that US intelligence knew a lot about mass surveillance, so much that he suspected they’d tried it. 
  • Ed built a system, code-named EPICSHELTER, to help the NSA store and back up data.
  • The unclassified report on the President’s Surveillance Program (PSP) was released to the public. The PSP, created in response to 9/11, had allowed the NSA to wiretap without a warrant and had allegedly expired in 2007. Ed thought the report had holes.

Ed eventually found the classified version of the PSP report. This version revealed the US had been conducting mass surveillance on its citizens past the expiry of the PSP. It had details about the program, STELLARWIND, and explained how the NSA had gotten around legislation and the Constitution. A secret court had given the NSA a blanket warrant to collect everyone’s data, which was questionable because warrants are by nature meant to be specific. 

Because most of the Internet is based in the US or owned by American companies, STELLARWIND affected nearly everyone in the world. He didn’t immediately act on this major news. For Edward Snowden, whistleblowing had to be carefully considered.

Snowden Builds the Heartbeat Program

In the hopes of better managing his epilepsy, Ed took a new job with the NSA in Hawaii, which his doctors had recommended for its relaxed lifestyle. While there, he decided to learn more about the mass surveillance program. He knew he wouldn’t be able to decide what to do about it until he understood it fully. 

Ed created a program called Heartbeat. Heartbeat searched the intelligence agencies “readboards” (news blogs) and pulled documents. It then created a feed tailored to an agent’s office, clearance, and projects. Ed had access to everyone’s documents and used Heartbeat to learn more about the mass surveillance program without arousing suspicion.

Edward Snowden: Whistleblower Decision

After reviewing the Constitution in 2012, Ed decided he had to act. STELLARWIND violated the Fourth Amendment. He decided to get in touch with journalists and share the top secret documents that proved the existence of the US’s mass surveillance program.

Edward Snowden: Works From Hong Kong

Ed met with journalists in Hong Kong in spring 2013 and the mass surveillance program was revealed to the public. Ed decided to reveal his own identity as the whistleblower so he could do so on his own terms. (If the government revealed him first, they’d try to discredit him and shift the focus from their illegal activities to Ed’s.) Ed’s family and girlfriend back in the US were harassed by the government—his girlfriend went through long interrogations and was followed by the FBI 24/7.

Edward Snowden: Whistleblowing Consequences

The US government charged Edward Snowden, whistleblower under the Espionage Act for divulging top secret documents and called for his extradition. The government of Hong Kong wouldn’t protect him and he tried to get to Ecuador with the help of WikiLeaks, an organization that publishes leaks and classified information. Ed couldn’t fly direct and ended up stranded in Russia when the US canceled his passport.

Ed was stuck in a Russian airport for forty days before the Russian government granted him temporary asylum. His girlfriend moved to Russia to join him and they were married. Ed still lives in Russia as of 2019, where he works for the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Edward Snowden: Whistleblower Reveals Mass Surveillance

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Edward Snowden's "Permanent Record" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Permanent Record summary:

  • What Ed Snowden discovered that caused him to completely lose faith in the government
  • How Snowden led the bombshell reports of US mass surveillance
  • How Snowden is coping with his treatment as both patriot and traitor

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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