What Did Edward Snowden Do? The Historic NSA Leak

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Who is Edward Snowden and what did he do? How did Ed decide to leak top secret government documents? What did Edward Snowden do after he blew the whistle?

Edward Snowden is best known for leaking documents proving the existence of US mass surveillance. He spoke to journalists in 2013 and then received asylum from Russia.

What did Edward Snowden do? Learn more about it below.

What Did Edward Snowden Do to Find Out About Mass Surveillance?

The Unclassified Report on the President’s Surveillance Program was released around the same time Ed was starting to suspect the US might be conducting some form of mass surveillance. Ed thought the report had holes in it, so he went looking through the CIA and NSA networks for the classified version. He couldn’t find it and eventually gave up.

What did Edward Snowden do to get to the classified version of the report? The classified version found him. Because Ed was a sysadmin, whenever someone accidentally saved a draft copy of something they shouldn’t have, the system alerted him. The most confidential files had labels called “dirty words” that indicated that the file shouldn’t be stored outside of high-security drives. Whenever the system encountered a dirty word, it would notify the sysadmin—in this case, Ed—so he could get rid of it. He was expected to take a look at flagged files to make sure they weren’t flagged by accident. 

Someone saved a draft of the classified report where they shouldn’t have (it normally lived in a compartment of Exceptionally Controlled Information). Ed read it and discovered that the US government was in fact conducting mass surveillance.

What Did Edward Snowden Do When He Decided to Blow the Whistle?

In 2012, the intelligence community celebrated Constitution Day and Citizenship Day by sending around an email and setting up a table with free hard copies of the Constitution. Ed always took a copy, and this year, with everything weighing on his mind, he read it closely. The Fourth Amendment in particular resonated with him, because it covered privacy. 

Unlike the NSA, Ed considers that our computer files count as “papers” and our data, including metadata, falls under “effects.” Our phones, clouds, and computers are also our “homes”—are you any more comfortable giving a stranger your unlocked phone than you are letting them into your house?

Ed decided he was going to leak the intelligence community’s original documents rather than simply describe STELLARWIND to the press. This meant that he had to access the documents, organize them, and then remove them from the NSA building.

What Did Edward Snowden Do to Steal the Files From the NSA?

Ed had access to a lot of intelligence data including, importantly, FBI reports on how they caught people. Since the FBI would usually arrest people on their way home from work, Ed paid particular attention to how he interacted with security on his way out. He’d worked security back in the job that got him his clearance in Maryland and he knew it was boring, so he’d banter with the guards and chat about his Rubik’s Cube.

After Ed got home from work, he’d hide his laptop under a cotton blanket in case the FBI had bugged his house. Then, he’d transfer the files from the SD cards to a bigger, very securely encrypted, external storage device. 

What did Edward Snowden do after storing the files? Just like at work, Ed was careful not to leave any traces of what he was doing on his technology at home.

What Did Edward Snowden Do to Come Forward?

Ed thought about trying to keep his name out of the leak, but ultimately decided not to for a couple of reasons:

  • He was probably the only person in the intelligence community who had access to all the files he was going to leak, so it wouldn’t take the intelligence community long to figure out he was the source. The only way to avoid this would have been to share fewer files, which would have weakened his story. 
  • The files might contain identifying metadata. Metadata is more than just the date a file was accessed; the tags can be invisible and Ed didn’t know what they all might be. To erase even the ones he knew about, he’d have to alter the files, which might cause people to question if they were real and authentic.
What Did Edward Snowden Do? The Historic NSA Leak

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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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