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  • Writer's pictureNina Kolarzik

What Happened to Them? Part 3: Edward Snowden

Read What Happened to Them? Part 1: Elnaz Rekabi and Part 2: Peng Shuai.

Occasionally, someone pops up in the news. Their name is mentioned, their story told, and they are linked to important political events or societal developments. And as suddenly as they appear in the spotlight of media attention, they disappear again. Observing this phenomenon I began to wonder: Why are these people and their lives of any interest? And what happened to them after they vanished from our screens? It is not just gossip. Their stories and how they are narrated—in the media as well as on the political and social stage—can reveal certain things about the systems we live in. More than that, individual stories are more emotional, hence more attention-grabbing, than general transmissions of information, and this attention can serve as a shield to protect politically persecuted individuals. Yet, the duration and nature of their telling reflect the attention span of society, and the people whose stories are told may be quickly forgotten, their protection or the attention to an important issue in their lives are linked to fading with our memory. 

In this series of articles, I bring to the spotlight four people who have been and disappeared from the news at some point, and who have caught my interest. 

One of the most famous whistleblowers worldwide, Edward Snowden, has also made fewer public appearances in recent years, however, for other reasons and in an entirely different situation.

In 2013, Snowden revealed the large-scale surveillance of the US intelligence service NSA of the US population as well as political actors globally by sharing with journalists of the Guardian and the Washington Post a vast amount of secret documents from surveillance programs. Since then, he is facing jail if he should return to the US on grounds of violating the Espionage Act. He attempted to flee from Hong Kong to Ecuador, but stranded in Russia: What he thought would be a one-day layover seems to have become a lifetime layover in Moscow. In his autobiography, he wrote that “Exile is an endless layover.” 

Snowden initially continued to be very engaged in the discussion on surveillance, attending conferences online and giving speeches and interviews from a distance. However, within the past three years, he kept a lower profile which he partly explained with the concerns for the safety of his family: his wife Lindsay Mills and their two sons.

Snowden has been heavily criticized for staying in Russia, especially since the Russian attack on Ukraine. However, he said that: “It is not my choice to be in Russia. I'm constantly criticizing the Russian government's policy, the Russian government's human rights record—even the Russian president by name.” The US canceled his passport and he is threatened with extradition which limits his freedom of movement. The charges of treason against him in the US still stand, and it is unlikely that they will be dropped in the near future. Meanwhile, Snowden received Russian citizenship in 2022.

Nevertheless, Snowden claims to have “no regrets.” While the technological developments and capabilities of surveillance technology continue to pose a risk to people's privacy and make those of 2013 look like children’s toys, he also highlights positive changes. One of these positive developments is the nowadays common use of end-to-end encryption. The debate on surveillance, privacy and abuse of power, which Snowden triggered in 2013, has provoked changes in laws and society. The collection of data by institutions and companies has become questioned and checked upon, instead of being uncritically accepted.

When individuals appear on the news and their stories are told in the media, it is at times easy to forget that they are more than symbols. Instead of being brief sensations that fade within a moment as our attention is diverted to the next headline, continued reporting on their stories reminds us that they are real, living people: Their stories do not end when media attention shifts but continue beyond that.

Written by Nina Kolarzik.

Photo by Mike Herbst.


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