On the one-year anniversary of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, Brooke reflects on the man who set off a global debate about surveillance and the right to privacy, and whose personal saga and public image continue to intrigue and divide us.
Take a look at WNYC producer Jody Avirgan's running list of what we know the NSA can do.
This episode is included in the On the Media #smartbinge podcast playlist at wnyc.org/smartbinge
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. When his revelations first appeared early last June in London’s Guardian and the Washington Post, he was like an unidentified flying object that suddenly appeared on our radar screen, flying very close and low.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The biggest news out of Washington today is this: Big Brother is watching you!
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The Guardian newspaper reported the NSA has been collecting phone records from millions of Verizon customers under a secret court order.
MALE CORRESOPNDENT: An unknown source leaked the information to columnist Glenn Greenwald.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And when finally he was identified a few days later in the Guardian, it seemed to generate only more confusion.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The question here all day has been, who is Edward Snowden? FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Up until about, oh, I don't know, 72 hours ago, this guy was a bit of a pipsqueak and now he's front page all over the world.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: He is a 29-year-old high school dropout.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Snowden was living in Hawaii, making $200,000 a year.
BRIAN ROSS/ABC NEWS: Part of the life he left behind involves his long-term girlfriend, a pole dancer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We’ve lived with Edward Snowden his revelations and his personal saga for exactly a year, so let’s recap, starting with the crucial stuff of his revelations. Jody Avirgan of WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show, put together an exhaustive list of what's now known about the surveillance capabilities of the NSA. Jody, read the highlights.
JODY AVIRGAN: The NSA can track the numbers of both parties on a phone call, as well location, time and duration.
It can track bank transactions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
JODY AVIRGAN: It can monitor text messages, also your YouTube views and Facebook likes, in real time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
JODY AVIRGAN: It can access your email, chat, and web browsing data, map your social networks and access your smartphone app data.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm!
JODY AVIRGAN: It can intercept and store webcam images, record phone calls, store them and replay them, up to a month later, harvest images from emails and texts, and more, and feed it into facial recognition software.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We learned about that last week.
JODY AVIRGAN: We did. It can crack all sorts of sophisticated computer encryption. It can remotely access a computer by setting up a fake wireless connection. It can set up a fake LinkedIn, not a fake LinkedIn account but an entire fake LinkedIn social network.
It can build a fake internet café. It can bank at a -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, all right, okay. I, I think that’ll do it. We’ll link to the complete list. But we should stipulate, that's what we know the NSA can do, not necessarily what it does do. Ah, actually, it does do a lot of that, and more, with the help of British intelligence, and yes, the German and French, and many others. And, of course, China and Russia also have well-documented domestic and foreign surveillance operations. But “everyone does it” is an unpersuasive argument to the many Americans who have seen their presumed right to privacy upended. To them, Snowden's an unambiguous hero.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, calls Snowden a national hero.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: I think that he gives me hope that we may actually regain our Bill of Rights.
CORRESPONDENT: The Executive Director of the ACLU praising NSA leaker Edward Snowden, saying he did this country a service by spurring debate about the reach of the US government’s electronic surveillance programs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And here is former congressman Ron Paul.
RON PAUL: He’s telling the truth, and this is what we are starved for. The American people are starved for the truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak.
STEVE WOZNIAK: I believe he’s a hero. I believe he’s coming directly from his heart, that he feels some goodness, that he believes in and loves his country, America, so strongly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: “If Snowden hadn’t come forward, the steady encroachment of the surveillance state would have continued,” wrote John Cassidy in the New Yorker Online. “Now, Big Brother and his enablers have been rattled.” Seems so. The secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has posted some filings related to its major decisions on surveillance cases, and the NSA has posted some declassified files. Even Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who’d lied to the Senate about the extent of the programs, now concedes that the time has come for a national conversation. And journalism weighed in, with the prize.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The publishers of Edward Snowden's leaks have won the Pulitzer in Journalism, in the category of Public Service. The winners include reporters from the Guardian and the Washington Post newspapers. The leaks revealed the huge program that collects information about millions upon millions of American phone calls and emails.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Edward Snowden says he seeks an end to unchecked unwarranted surveillance of citizens and allies, but his revelations also exposed CIA intercepts inside Iran, the tracking of the emails and phone calls of the Taliban in Northwest Pakistan and the hacking of computers in China, and so on, in other words, intelligence operations against current or erstwhile adversaries. So America is divided, as usual.
A January Pew poll found that 57% of people below the age of 29 believed Snowden served the public interest. But that number drops precipitously with age, and overall, even among those who praise his action, most say that the government should pursue a criminal case against him. Confusing.
JULIANA HOROWITZ: You can dislike NSA programs and also dislikes Snowden.
JULIANA HOROWITZ: And you can think that Snowden served the public interest but still think that what he did was criminal. It's a more nuanced story than simply Snowden's a hero or not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: An NBC poll released this week found 24% backed Snowden's actions, versus 34% who opposed them; 40% had no opinion. A Rasmussen poll released Thursday says 42% think he's a spy.
Coverage of the latest leak about facial recognition was comparatively scant and unremarked upon, but if the steady drip, drip, drip of reveals has produced some Snowden revelation fatigue, there’s still ample interest in Snowden himself. Brian Williams’ interview with him last week won its 10pm timeslot in the coveted 18 to 49 demographic. Glenn Greenwald's Snowden book, No Place to Hide, is becoming a movie. Oliver Stone plans a Snowden bio-pic. And Beyond: The Edward Snowden Story, the comic book, is already out. That, at least, adds some literal color to a year-long story that has been told almost entirely in black and white.