Snowden Aims to Be Known as Privacy Defender, Not Whistleblower

NEWS ANALYSIS: Snowden is not sitting silently on the sidelines in Russia and continues to participate actively in the debate about privacy in the modern world.

Download the authoritative guide: The Ultimate Guide to IT Security Vendors

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden doesn't want to be known just as a whistleblower, he wants to be a defender of individual privacy. That's a message that Snowden reiterated during a remote appearance at the Hackers On Planet Earth (HOPE) conference in New York on July 19.

Snowden has been on the run from U.S. authorities for the past year after he fled the country in June 2013 and has been hiding at an undisclosed location in Russia ever since. Snowden had been employed as a contractor with the National Security Agency (NSA) and pilfered confidential documents about the spy agency's surveillance activities.

At the HOPE conference, Snowden participated in a discussion with Daniel Ellsberg, himself a one-time whistleblower. In 1971, Ellsberg, who had been working for a military contractor, leaked a top-secret Pentagon study about military decisions related to the Vietnam War. As opposed to Snowden, who fled the U.S., Ellsberg surrendered to authorities and had a trial, which ended up being dismissed in 1973.

While 40 years separate Snowden's actions from those of Ellsberg, a common thread enabled both. "Technology empowers dissent," Snowden said. "A copy machine may not seem like a killer app to people, but it enabled you [Ellsberg]."

Technology is also the key for enabling privacy, which was another major theme of Snowden's HOPE appearance.

"We the people, you the people, you in this room right now have both the means and capabilities to help build a better future by encoding our rights into the programs and protocols upon which we rely every day," Snowden said. "That is what a lot of my future work is going to be involved in."

The "we the people" reference—which, of course, comes from the U.S. Constitution—is an oft-repeated theme in Snowden's remote appearances. Snowden also appeared remotely at the South by South West (SXSW) conference in March. During his SXSW appearance, Snowden repeatedly mentioned the need for end-to-end encryption and user privacy tools.

Snowden himself has used the Tails Linux distribution, which is an operating system that is intended to help enable individuals to maintain their online privacy.

It is somewhat ironic that technology is both a tool to empower dissent as well as to take it away. Snowden's repeated emphasis on privacy is that it is up to users and organizations to make privacy a priority and to empower themselves. Snowden's disclosures have an impact on organizations making privacy a priority. A May report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) found significant improvement in American companies' privacy and transparency practices in the post-Snowden era.

Vendors big and small are all rushing to satisfy public demand for improved privacy tools—and, no doubt, there are likely some financial rewards for those that are successful. How Snowden will be involved in the push for privacy tools remains to be seen, though his voice is a powerful one.

Yet the big question remains about when and if Snowden will ever return to the U.S. to stand trial for his actions. Daniel Ellsberg stood trial for his actions, but then again, so too did Wikileaks leaker Bradley Manning. While Ellsberg walked away from his trial a free man, Manning did not.

One thing is for sure, Snowden is not sitting silently on the sidelines in Russia and continues to participate actively in the debate about privacy in the modern world.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.