The Leading Men: The 15 Most Influential Cultural Figures of the New Millennium

By Bret Begun | September 15 2015 |

The Whistle-Blower: Edward Snowden
He lifted the lid on secret government surveillance to reveal how our freedoms were being abused in the name of national security.

Oliver Stone’s upcoming Edward J. Snowden biopic may strike many moviegoers as redundant. The Wachowskis got there first.

The Matrix depicted a time when a lone fugitive would pierce the veil of the world as we know it to reveal the world as it actually is. Keanu Reeves’ Neo—a.k.a. the One—alone saw the cascading green characters behind the carefully constructed façade. The letters and numbers that revealed to Snowden how the U.S. government was engaged in covert surveillance of our online activities and phone records might not have been green, but the effect of his revelations to journalists in 2013 was the same: to shatter our illusions and call into question the methods of the powers that be.

Predictably, the powers that be pushed back. “We need to hang him on the courthouse square as soon as we get our hands on him,” Saxby Chambliss, former vice chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in July (unwittingly echoing the sentiments of The Matrix’s Agent Smith, who was hellbent on enforcing the status quo at all costs). But whether you consider the former National Security Agency contractor a Benedict Arnold or a patriot in the vein of Paul Revere—Big Brother is coming! Big Brother is coming!—his acts reordered national priorities. If 9/11 was one inflection point, after which hoovering up data in the name of homeland security took precedence, Snowden’s leak was another, in which average citizens were made to realize that, as a country, we’d gone too far. His disclosures forced us to debate the balance between safety and civil liberties.

If you want to know just how directly Snowden has affected you, look no further than your iPhone. He showed that technology giants handed over proprietary customer information to the government—and later turned these entities into bitter public adversaries. Apple CEO Tim Cook’s June attack on Washington’s attempts to undermine constitutionally guaranteed rights—and on behemoths like Facebook and Google for monetizing their users’ data—wouldn’t have happened without Snowden.

Two years later, Snowden’s bombshell continues to resound: In August, the New York Times reported that AT&T facilitated government spying on Internet traffic in what NSA documents call a “highly collaborative” partnership (casting the company’s slogan, “Mobilizing Your World,” in an entirely new light). “He brought everyone from libertarians to liberals into this alliance,” says Stone, whose Snowden, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, will be released on Christmas Day. “He provoked a furious response.” So furious that it led to the passage, in June, of the USA Freedom Act, which imposes for the first time strict limits on the bulk collection of the telecommunications data of U.S. citizens by intelligence agencies.

Snowden himself points to revelations that the government aggressively fought encryption efforts, with Uncle Sam arguing that you can’t identify and catch the bad guys if you don’t know what they’re saying (and e-mailing and posting and texting and tweeting). Today, as a result of Snowden’s actions, not only are there encryption technologies that protect users’ privacy, but they are being embraced by a newly technoliterate public. And therein lies Snowden’s proudest achievement. “These technologies can extend those same guarantees of freedom of speech to people in places like China and Russia,” says the 32-year-old via e-mail from Moscow, where he sought asylum after fleeing American authorities (he’s charged with theft of government property and violating the Espionage Act). “Technology can defend basic liberties where politics can’t.”

It’s natural to conclude, as many erroneously do, that the man who exposed a global surveillance program must be against surveillance. For the record, he isn’t. He just wants it done with the knowledge and consent of the people. When he saw that we didn’t have a seat at the table, he took matters into his own hands. “Everyone knew challenging mass surveillance would cost them everything,” Snowden says. “Can you blame them? Everybody had something to lose, and there were no whistle-blower protections for contractors like myself. What can you do? I found my answer.”

How history will judge him is anybody’s guess, but there’s a precedent. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst employed by the rand Corporation, turned over to the New York Times and other publications the Pentagon Papers—a top-secret study of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam from 1945 to 1968. Though he was vilified by many at the time, today Ellsberg’s decision is seen as heroic, the kind of act that is critical to a functioning democracy.

Snowden similarly brought to light abuses perpetrated in our name, and it’s difficult to imagine that future textbooks won’t portray him as more Ellsberg than Arnold, one man against an all-powerful machine. “With luck, it won’t be much worse than an epitaph,” Snowden says when asked how students will be studying him 50 years from now. “‘He sought to reconcile a growing divide between morality and legality.'”