But whatever his motives and supposed flaws, Snowden told us things we absolutely needed to know. He told us that the US government had moved from the targeted surveillance of individuals to the mass surveillance of entire populations. As he writes in his autobiography, the US and its allies were building the capability to collect all of the world’s digital communications, store them indefinitely, and search through them at will. Snowden revealed a secret program called PRISM that allowed the NSA to routinely collect users’ data from Google, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo, among others. There was also ‘upstream collection’, which was ‘arguably even more invasive’. The NSA had secretly embedded wiretapping equipment with ‘obliging’ Internet service providers around the world. A program called ‘TURMOIL’ would make a copy of all the data coming through and look for anything ‘suspicious’. That, Snowden wrote, might be a particular email address, credit card number, or phone number of interest to the NSA; or just the geographic destination of your Internet activity; you might even become a target simply because you typed in the term ‘anonymous Internet proxy’ or the word ‘protest’. If TURMOIL did flag your internet traffic, another program called ‘TURBINE’ would automatically send malware back to your computer. It all happened ‘in less than 686 milliseconds’ and then the NSA would then be able to see everything you did online. An NSA analyst could play back recordings of your computer screen, moment by moment. They would have your emails, chats, files, photos, videos and browser history. ‘Your entire digital life now belongs to them.’
These were illegal and warrantless searches of US citizens because the collection happened automatically and in bulk. Snowden and his supporters say that no one in the US spy agencies has ever been prosecuted for these illegal searches — while he is on the run for revealing them. PRISM, TURMOIL, and TURBINE were all appropriately sinister names for programs that — in the detail of how they operated — told us much about the power of the modern state over the individual. As new technologies like facial recognition become more efficient, the state will become even more powerful — and power is always, and inevitably, abused. Thanks to Snowden, there have been some limits placed on the ability of the US government and their allies to snoop on us. That’s why a group of German parliamentarians have nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize; why some Americans want his statue in a park. But the US government has the right to some secrets, those that help to keep Americans safe in a dangerous world. The good that Snowden did has to be weighed against the harm he did. He is both hero and villain. So, a Nobel prize is too much but a pardon for Snowden might be the right thing to do. Bring him home from Moscow.