Edward Snowden. Photo: Barton Gellman for The Washington Post, via Getty
It was December 11, 2012, and in a small art space behind a furniture store in Honolulu, NSA contractor Edward Snowden was working to subvert the machinery of global surveillance.
Snowden was not yet famous. His blockbuster leaks were still six months away, but the man destined to confront world leaders on a global stage was addressing a much smaller audience that Sunday evening. He was leading a local Crypto Party, teaching less than two dozen Hawaii residents how to encrypt their hard drives and use the internet anonymously.
He introduced himself as Ed, says technologist and writer Runa Sandvik, who co-presented with Snowden at the event, and spoke about the experience for the first time with WIRED. We talked for a bit before everything started. And I remember asking where he worked or what he did, and he didnt really want to tell.
The grassroots crypto party movement began in 2011 with a Melbourne, Australia-based activist who goes by Asher Wolf. The idea was for technologists versed in software like Tor and PGP to get together with activists, journalists, and anyone else with a real-life need for those tools and show them the ropes. By the end of 2012, thered been more than 1,000 such parties in countries around the world, by Wolfs count. They were non-political and open to anyone.
Dont exclude anybody, Wolf says. Invite politicians. Invite people you wouldnt necessarily expect. It was about being practical. By the end of the session, they should have Tor installed and be able to use OTR and PGP.
The site of Edward Snowdens December, 2012 Crypto Party. Image: Google Street View
That Snowden organized such an event himself while still an NSA contract worker speaks volumes about his motives. Since the Snowden revelations began in June 2013, the whistleblower has been accused in editorial pages, and even the halls of Congress, of being a spy for China or Russia. A recent Wall Street Journal column argues that Snowden might have been working for the Russians and Chinese at the same time. [O]nly a handful of the secrets had anything to do with domestic surveillance by the government and most were of primary value to an espionage operation.
For the most part, these attacks have bounced harmlessly off Snowden, deflected by the Teflon of his well-managed public appearances and the self-evident risk and sacrifice he took on. One notable exception came last month, when Snowden submitted a video question to a televised town hall with Russian president Vladamir Putin; his question to Putin about Russias surveillance apparatus came across as a softball, and for a moment Snowden looked like a prop in Putins stage show.
But regardless of what you think of his actions, Snowdens intentions are harder to doubt when you know that even before he leaked hundreds of thousands of documents to expose the surveillance world, he spent two hours calmly teaching 20 of his neighbors how to protect themselves from it. Even as he was thinking globally, he was acting locally. Its like coming home to find the director of Greenpeace starting a mulch pit in your backyard.
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Snowdens First Move Against the NSA Was a Party in Hawaii