Leaving a $200,000 salary, a loving girlfriend and his family behind, possibly forever, Snowden has made an enormous sacrifice, trading a cozy life for the life of a fugitive and - eventually, probably, prisoner.
Snowden, who last week revealed himself to be the biggest whistleblower since Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers, is a controversial figure: hero to some, criminal to a great many.
Speaker of the House John Boehner called him a "traitor" while Wikileaks leader Julian Assange, liberal documentary filmmaker Michael Moore and uber-conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck – a strange coalition if there ever was one - defended him as a hero. In the Los Angeles Times, an angry reader growls "he's no Daniel Ellsberg", while the actual Daniel Ellsberg, in the pages of The Guardian, suggested that "there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden's release of NSA material, and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago".
Time magazine declared him a "patriot". In the New York Times – the paper that 40 years ago exposed the Pentagon Papers - commentator David Brooks chided Snowden for not visiting his mother nearly enough.
In Hong Kong, hundreds of protesters stood in the rain on Saturday in a demonstration of support, while Snowden's girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, became an internet sensation, ironically losing all privacy as her colorful past, pole-dancing photos and YouTube videos went viral.
Yet little is really known about Edward Snowden's life or motivation. A Washington Post profile portrayed him as an ungrateful son, a high-school dropout and an unfriendly neighbor. An AP profile reveals him to be a conflicted young man, though described by acquaintances and friends as "always having strong convictions".
He grew up in a Maryland suburb, in the shadow of the nearby NSA headquarters, with two parents working in branches of the federal government, and was still shocked to discover what the spy agencies that were a part of his everyday life since childhood actually did. He is a self-proclaimed Buddhist who joined the army in the hopes of becoming a Green Beret and fighting in Iraq; an avid freedom advocator with a high degree of paranoia about his privacy who decided to join the CIA, of all things.
After years of working inside the system, disillusioned with pretty much everything, he decided to kiss his old life goodbye and lift the curtain to reveal the true Wizard of Oz.
All profiles, though, portray Snowden as a somewhat tragic figure. But the true tragedy of Snowden's life is that his immense sacrifice was all for naught.
A suicide mission
Snowden is fighting a battle that's already lost. Even if he manages to escape the fates of Wikileaks whistleblower Bradley Manning and Reddit founder Aaron Swartz – one behind bars for life, the other hanged himself– his is a suicide mission, and a thankless one. This is not the Vietnam War. There is no Anti-War on Privacy protest movement chanting in the streets, though there has been some public support for him in his quandary.
No doubt, many were shocked by Snowden's leaks. Internet users who hadn't been paranoid before suddenly began to sense crosshairs on their backs.
Though many may have been shocked to find out that their beloved Web, the so-called democratic medium that promotes democracy and frees nations from tyranny, that gives them countless platforms to create and express themselves, this benevolent technological force that brought the joy of LOLcats into their lives, turned out to be a gigantic surveillance device – but the writing was on the wall for at least 20 years.
The loss of privacy is part of the web's design. It is contained within its DNA.
"Are we living in 1984?", asked countless articles this weeks – as sales of George Orwell's masterpiece soared 7,000% - and the truth is: 1984 doesn't even begin to cover the situation we're in.
The dark side of the lawless realm
The fact of the matter is that 20 years after its birth, the internet is still a lawless, civil rights-free zone. Nobody has any rights over his property or his personal data. Kindle users learned this in 2009, as – with supreme irony - Amazon removed their digital copies of "1984" due to a copyright issue.
This week, AP revealed what many suspected: that Prism, the government eavesdropping program uncovered by Snowden, was actually the tip of the iceberg. It is a tiny part of a much larger eavesdropping program designed to give the NSA – which already got the congress' approval for warrantless examinations into the data of American citizens – the power to transform the chaotic, unintelligible web into a neat, transparent aquarium, where government agents can find the names, addresses, search histories, chat logs and emails of just about anyone.
The dark side of the so-called Twitter Revolution was that while our ability to interact has made giant leaps forward, so has the ability of business and government to track us.
Never in the history of the human race has it been this easy to spy on the people.
Yet it seems nobody cares.
No one has taken to the streets. Our most private secrets are exposed to the judging eyes of 20-something security analysts like Snowden. Yet there's no pro-privacy protest movement demanding it stop. The Facebook Beacon scandal of 2009 and the Google Plus scandal of 2010 caused a spasm of consumer faux-revolt, no more, before the companies did a mea culpa and went back to business as usual.
People have been told over and over again that companies like Google and Facebook make money by hawking their private information, yet they merrily divulge their details. On the one hand they have corporations mining their personal data and selling it and on the other hand they have government secretly policing them behind their backs – and you know what? They seem to be fine with both.
Loving Big Brother
According to a Washington Post poll conducted along with Pew last week, 56% of Americans define the NSA eavesdropping program as "acceptable", 45% think it should be allowed to go on and 62% believe it is "more important right now for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy".
A Time magazine poll shows a majority of Americans believe Snowden did the right thing by leaking the documents, but still think he should be punished.
Edward Snowden leaked the Prism documents, he said, in order to increase awareness of what he sees as violation of the U.S. constitution: as a protest against what Ellsberg last week described as an '"executive coup" against the U.S. constitution "that bears all the markings and legal and technological infrastructure of a police state." Or as Ellsberg puts it vividly: "the United Stasi of America".
Snowden was too late. We've become so used to handing out our private information for free for so long that we're unmoved. We assume, of course, that this system would never bother with us and that we are safe.
The tragedy of Edward Snowden isn't that he'll probably get caught and has lost everything. The tragedy is that his efforts are doomed to fail. We can never regain the privacy that we lost with the advent of ECHELON, the PATRIOT act, the Protect America Act and other assaults on our privacy. But it seems most people don’t value their privacy very much. HAARETZ DIGITAL EDITION