Edward Snowden's Other Motive for Leaking

He wasn't just trying to spark democratic debate on surveillance. He also hoped his revelations would prompt programmers to build better encryption.
More
Reuters

A few pages into Glenn Greenwald's newly released book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, there is a fascinating passage that transforms my understanding of why the contractor leaked NSA secrets.

The familiar rationale still applies. Edward Snowden wanted to inform Americans about the actions of our government and to spark a debate about mass surveillance. "My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name," he reportedly wrote in a note to his collaborators, "and that which is done against them."

Actually, though, he had a second motive. Thomas Jefferson once wrote: "In questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." Snowden wrote:

While I pray that public awareness and debate will lead to reform, bear in mind that the policies of men change in time, and even the Constitution is subverted when the appetites of power demand it. In words from history: Let us speak no more of faith in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of cryptography. 

Even if most people had ignored Snowden, he might not have judged his own actions a total waste. After all, they might have inspired a single cryptographer to innovate. That could be hugely significant.

The quote above isn't the only one that supports this analysis. Greenwald reproduces another paragraph that Snowden wrote to reporter and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras early in their correspondence, characterizing it as "the crux of what he viewed as his mission." Snowden wrote:

The shock of this initial period [after the first revelations] will provide the support needed to build a more equal internet, but this will not work to the advantage of the average person unless science outpaces law. By understanding the mechanisms through which our privacy is violated, we can win here. We can guarantee for all people equal protection against unreasonable search through universal laws, but only if the technical community is willing to face the threat and commit to implementing over-engineered solutions. In the end, we must enforce a principle whereby the only way the powerful may enjoy privacy is when it is the same kind shared by the ordinary: one enforced by the laws of nature, rather than the policies of man. 

I may be forgetting about a statement or series of statements that Snowden made over the last year. But as best I can remember, these are the clearest passages that we have indicating a second primary motive. Snowden was trying to reach the masses to inform us and spark a debate that somehow reined in the NSA. 

He was also trying to reach elites. In leaking, he hoped to inform and influence a small subculture of tech influencers. Regardless of how Americans reacted to his leaks, he hoped they'd awaken to the ideology and reach of the surveillance state, and that at least some programmers would be inspired to thwart it with technology.

This is in keeping with statements Snowden has made about the importance of encryption. It also casts additional doubt on the theory that he's been a Russian spy all along. If that were true, why would he fabricate this other rationale in private correspondence with Poitras? With that, I'm going to delve back into Greenwald's text. I'm guessing there will be more of interest in future posts, and I'll update this one if I come across another relevant passage, or if anyone sends me an old Snowden quote that is relevant to this second motive for leaking.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In