The saga of whistleblower Edward Snowden has moved with the velocity of a spy thriller. Here's everything you need to know about his controversial leaks. 

The saga of whistleblower Edward Snowden has moved with the velocity of a spy thriller, twisting and turning with each new revelation.

It started June 5, when the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald released a previously secret report on how Verizon shares metadata about Americans' phone calls—time, duration, location—with the National Security Agency. Every day.

That was a mere prelude to a much bigger bombshell. The next day, Greenwald dropped the real story: a mysterious program called PRISM, which the NSA uses to track the communications that pass through nine different companies, including MicrosoftGoogleYahooFacebook, and Apple. Snowden, an NSA contractor, said his conscience motivated him to put all kinds of NSA spying documents on a hard drive, flee to Hong Kong, and pass that information to the press.

Here’s an overview of where things stand now.


Initially, we thought it was almost literally a method for the NSA to surveill the entire Internet. That's because one of the NSA slides claimed it the agency had "direct access" to the servers of those companies. Here’s a cleaned-up version of the original slides:

However, we now think that PRISM refers more specifically to the NSA's ability to get information from those companies with relative ease, thanks to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Through secret, classified court orders, FISA allows U.S. intelligence agencies to demand information regarding communications—from phone calls and emails to Facebook messages—that pass through American shores. In a congressional hearing, Sean Joyce, the Deputy Director of the FBI, referred to PRISM as "the 702" tool, a provision of FISA.

Outside the U.S.

The U.K. has been getting information obtained through PRISM since 2010. At least one Dutch intelligence official claims the Netherlands gets the same deal. And Canada approved a similar program in 2011.

However, PRISM appears to break the European Union's strict data protection laws, at least according to one member of its parliament who helped write them. Reports of the NSA bugging the E.U. offices in Washington, D.C., and at the United Nations in New York have also thrown a kink into U.S.-E.U. talks over a trade pact.

The response in Washington

Only some members of Congress, those on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, are given fairly deep access to how the NSA works, and the reaction has been mixed. Referring to its abilities under the PATRIOT Act (which laid the groundwork for FISA's later amendments), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore) has said Americans "will be stunned and they will be angry."

House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), however, has defended programs like PRISM as "legal and necessary." Some members of Congress were aghast to find out it existed, despite a bill to renew FISA for another five years passing both the House and Senate handedly in 2012.

General Keith Alexander, chief of the NSA, has claimed those programs have been instrumental in stopping at least 50 terrorist attacks since the attacks on Sept. 11, though not everyone agrees.

A Congressional movement is the best chance of ending the NSA's surveillance, or at least finding more accountability in it. The Senate proposed one bill to declassify FISA rulings, then the House did the same. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) followed that with a proposal to strengthen U.S. citizens' privacy protections.

The companies involved

Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple all released public statements claiming they only give up users' information when the government makes it mandatory, and they only give up as much information as they have to.

Google went one step further, issuing a public letter requesting permission to declassify how many FISA orders it gets, apparently hoping to convince customers they weren't likely to be targets. Microsoft and Facebook quickly followed suit.

Then, Facebook got permission from the NSA to share how many requests it gets in total—including ones from FISA courts—and did so. Google, however, claimed that the move misleading in that it didn’t make clear how many orders were directly related to FISA.

Both companies insisted everything about PRISM was actually legal under FISA, and that the program was narrower simpler than it sounded.

Popular sentiment

Reaction to the NSA leaks, even among former U.S. presidents. The Internet public, however, has been outraged. Three unique petitions have acquired a stunning number of followers. A We the People petition to pardon Edward Snowden received the requisite 100,000 signatures to prompt a formal response. (The Obama administration may refuse to comment on an ongoing investigation.) Another petition, an international one hosted at Avaaz, has nearly 1.4 million signatures.

Perhaps the most impressive petition is the one hosted by Internet activists and companies, called Stop Watching Us. It calls for a Congressional review of the NSA's practices, has more than half a million signatures, and has inspired more than 15,000 minutes spent talking to members of Congress's offices.

Hundreds of people also signed up for a unique service called My NSA Records, which promised to send Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the NSA on their behalf, asking for what the agency had on them. The NSA refused to give much. One activist tried to ask the NSA to delete his records, only to learn its court doesn't have a public address.

Crowdtilt campaign raised $15,000 for Snowden to use for legal troubles.

Edward Snowden

Demonstrators almost instantly took the streets in support of Snowden. His escapades are quite different from fellow whistleblower Bradley Manning, who's currently on trial for leaking heaps of Army information, though the two former soldiers have some similarities. Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney declared this made Snowden a traitor and maybe a Chinese spy.

He took that particular job at the firm Booz Allen specifically because it would give him access to evidence of NSA spying. He left a girlfriend in Hawaii, who apparently didn't know anything about this leak. (People hounded her even after she deleted her blog.) He used to frequent the Reddit section devoted to the Fourth Amendment in the digital age, Restore the Fourth.

Snowden contacted WikiLeaks affiliates in Iceland. He initially wanted to go to there because of its strong support for whistleblowers and Internet freedom, but it wasn't clear he could get there safely or that he'd necessarily be granted asylum.

The U.S. Department of Justice charged Snowden with espionage, theft, and conversion of government property on June 21, his 30th birthday. He successfully fled Hong Kong to Russia, in hopes of making it to Ecuador, but he's currently in a Moscow airport, stuck in international legal limbo. Ecuador's not looking likely, so he's applied to 19 other countries, including Russia.

Worth noting

Illustration by Jason Reed

The technology company founded by Steve Jobs has produced some of the most influential devices of all time. Headquartered in Cupertino, California, Apple is responsible for the iPhone, iPad, Mac computers, as well as the iPod personal music device and iTunes music platform.
The social network that was famously founded in a college dorm, Facebook has grown to become not only the largest social platform on the Internet, but also a major player in smartphone apps thanks to Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and many other one-off apps. The company’s acquisition of virtual reality company Oculus has positioned it to influence the future of that industry as well.
Owing much of its wealth and power to its dominant search engine, Google quickly expanded from a Web tool to a hardware and software maker. Today, Google maintains the Android mobile OS, Chrome Web browser, Chrome OS, YouTube, and a suite of Web apps such as Gmail, Google Drive, and the Google+ social network.
Ron Wyden is the Democratic senator from Oregon. Wyden is a leading voice on issues of civil liberties, privacy, and encryption within the U.S. congress.
Largely considered to be the largest social network behind Facebook, Twitter’s micro-blogging platform has become a favorite of everyone from top celebrities and sports figures to businessmen and teenagers hoping to become the next viral star. Twitter’s growth has slowed somewhat in recent years, leading the company to make sweeping changes to the network and associated features.
According to new leaks by Edward Snowden, the U.S. bugged E.U. offices in Washington, D.C.
The NSA whistleblower, still trapped in a Moscow airport, has released his first statement since leaving Hong Kong.
Reddit's general manager says the NSA hasn't asked for information under PRISM or similar programs.
Whistleblower Edward Snowden should probably get comfy and, maybe, learn to like the taste of borscht.
“I think that the bringing of it to the public notice has probably been, in the long term, beneficial."
You don't need a declassified FISA court order to understand these Photoshopped children's books.
Could the newest revelations to come from Edward Snowden relate to a secret NSA spying program called BLARNEY?
Does a refrigerator actually block radio transmissions?
Now that you mention it, the NSA <em>was</em> a little misleading.
The NSA has started rejecting Freedom of Information Act requests from citizens who want to know how much of their personal information the government has collected.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) take issue with an NSA fact sheet on PRISM. But they can't say why, because it's classified.
On Monday, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced the “FISA Accountability and Privacy Protection Act of 2013.”
With almost half a million signatures, StopWatching.Us has connected Americans with their elected representatives for more than 10,000 cumulative minutes.
Edward Snowden told the <i>South China Morning Post </i>that he took a job at security contractor Booz Allen Hamilton specifically to gain access to data about NSA spying.
The campaign to make the NSA's spying programs more transparent rests entirely on one of most unpopular, most divided U.S. Congresses in history.
"I appreciate what you are trying to do … however, it is not a very efficient way to do this," wrote a liaison officer in an email late last week.
Snowden will almost assuredly face trial in Hong Kong, where he has holed up since fleeing his life in Hawaii.
The court that runs PRISM isn't allowed to reveal how it operates, but a new bill could change that.
The rapper is currently enjoying the last laugh after the introductory track to her third album got panned for its conspiracy-theory rhetoric.
The agency is implementing a "2-person rule" for copying data to portable devices.
This man offered to ask the NSA to delete anyone's PRISM records. The only problem: The court that runs PRISM has no address.
"Without the 702 tool, we would not have identified Najibullah Zazi."
If Snowden is looking to move there, it isn’t likely he’ll make it. But now we know he genuinely tried.
Whistleblower Edward Snowden hadn't even finished giving his AMA-style interview.
The major tech companies involved in PRISM have differed drastically in how they have released government requests for customer data.
Could PRISM really have prevented 9/11?
Hundreds of thousands have signed petitions to shut down the NSA's PRISM surveillance program and pardon the whistleblower who revealed it.
The Wayback Machine delivers again.
When he was 18, Snowden worked for an anime company and was really good at the fighting game Tekken.
Three major companies want to be allowed to disclose how many requests for data they get from the NSA and FBI.
"I'm worried about somebody in our government might kill him with a cruise missile or a drone missile," Paul told Fox Business News.
PRISM critics are demanding privacy, but everyone seems to be making an exception for Edward Snowden's girlfriend.
Supporters and detractors alike have compared Snowden to Manning, but how much do the two whistleblowers and their situations really have in common?
Google published a letter asking the attorney general and head of the FBI to reveal how many secret court orders Google receives.
A group of senators, including Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), have proposed a bill that could reveal how many Americans the NSA is spying on.
Dutch intelligence agencies have received info from the U.S. National Security Agency's broad online surveillance program.
A memorandum obtained by the <em>Globe and Mail</em> has revealed that Canada’s Defense Minister Peter MacKay approved a “secret electronic eavesdropping program” in late 2011.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act laid the groundwork for the NSA's current surveillance operations. These are the lawmakers who made it possible.
Signs were soggy and activists were soaked, but the Internet brought people out to Union Square to show support for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The Crowdtilt fundraiser is already more than halfway to its $10,000 minimum goal.
"Pardon him?!? Oh hell no. He shouldn't even be prosecuted. He should be given some sort of medal."
This Twitter user is not the Edward Snowden you're looking for.
Snowden has allies in Iceland, but he'll face many challenges trying to get official protection there.
The most important whistleblower since Bradley Manning, currently in Hong Kong, says he "doesn't want to live in a society that does these sort of things."
President Obama claims PRISM isn't targeting American citizens. That doesn't do much to reassure European governments.
The U.S. PRISM program, an effort to monitor the country’s (and therefore the world’s) biggest Internet companies, is now an American export.
And the problem may not be limited to Verizon.
Promoted Stories Powered by Sharethrough
9 ways the NSA can track Americans without a warrant
President Obama wants Americans to rest assured: By law, the NSA is only allowed to track someone without a warrant if they're a foreigner.
From Our VICE Partners

Pure, uncut internet. Straight to your inbox.

Thanks for subscribing to our newsletter!