Snowden: 'I never thought I'd be saved' after NSA leaks

Speaking via an internet feed at San Diego Comic-Con, the former intelligence contractor talks about the aftermath of his bombshell disclosures on US government surveillance.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
4 min read
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

When Edward Snowden leaked highly classified secrets about government spying in 2013, the undertaking took meticulous coordination.

Snowden, a former NSA contractor, chatted with Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald and documentary maker Laura Poitras over encrypted email exchanges. Their first meeting hinged on code words and a secret signal involving a Rubik's cube.

But when the first article revealing hush-hush surveillance programs went live that June while he was in a Hong Kong hotel room, that's as far as Snowden had thought things through, he said over a live internet feed from Russia, where he's been living in exile since the leaks.

"I admit it. I did not have a plan beyond that point, beyond getting the story out there," Snowden said during a question-and-answer session Thursday at Comic-Con in San Diego. "I planned to ask the world for justice and see what happened."

As any reader of spy novels can tell you, danger might have quickly descended on Snowden.

"I never thought I would be saved," he said, adding he didn't even expect to make it out of Hawaii, where he was living before heading to Hong Kong to meet the journalists. "But I thought the stories might be able to still get out there."

It's been three years since Snowden, now 33, leaked information about NSA programs like Prism, which gave the US access to people's emails, video chats, photos and documents through some of the world's biggest tech companies. The disclosures put pressure on Silicon Valley companies including Apple, Google and Yahoo to step up their efforts in encryption and privacy and galvanized the companies to push back against the government on issues of spying and user data.

Apple, for example, was embroiled in a standoff with the FBI earlier this year over information on an iPhone tied to a gunman in the San Bernardino, California, shooting in December. Neither side backed down. In the end, the federal government claimed it found a way inside the phone without Apple's help.

But Snowden still managed to take a jab at Silicon Valley on Thursday. "The FBI actually gets a copy of this talk, because we're going through Google Hangouts," he said, drawing laughs from the crowd. "Anybody basically who asks nicely gets a judge to sign off on it."

The Comic-Con Q&A took place after the first public screening of "Snowden,"a biopic from director Oliver Stone that will be released in September. Snowden took part in a panel before an audience of about a hundred people that included Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Snowden (and who sported an American flag t-shirt on Thursday), and Shailene Woodley, who plays his longtime girlfriend, Lindsay.

Snowden, who cooperated with the movie-makers, said he feels uneasy about being the subject of a film. "I don't think anybody looks forward to having a movie made about themselves -- particularly somebody who's a privacy advocate," he said.

But it's not just a movie about Snowden. He's actually in the movie, too. He takes over for Gordon-Levitt at the end for a brief scene.

The idea was born when Stone visited Snowden in Moscow and wanted to shoot footage for DVD extras. That process morphed into filming a scene for the movie itself. "It was something that made me really nervous," Snowden said. "But I think [Stone] made it work."

"It was a gamble," said Stone. Trying his hand at acting was difficult for Snowden, despite how eloquent he is in interviews. They shot the scene at least nine times from several different angles. "We got there eventually, but it was a painful day," Stone said.

"It means a lot to have the endorsement of Ed himself," added Gordon-Levitt. Snowden also approved of the voice Gordon-Levitt used to play Snowden, saying his friends and family told him it was spot on.

"If you can pass the family test, you're doing alright," Snowden said.

Since the leaks

Snowden's life clearly hasn't been the same since 2013. Now he's a fugitive, accused of violating the Espionage Act, and hasn't been home since before he made the leaks. More recently, though, he's been roaming around the US in robot form: a flat-screen with a camera on two wheels that stands about 5 feet tall, affectionately called the Snowbot.

But for this event, he appeared on a giant screen that just showed the movie. (Ever the technical expert, Snowden opened his comments by explaining the 5-second lag in the feed between him and the audience.)

While he can't come back to the US, he's keeping busy. Earlier Thursday, Snowden and hacker Andrew "Bunnie" Huang presented plans to the MIT Media Lab for an iPhone case meant to prevent your phone from spying on you.

It's a striking contrast from the crisis of conscience that he says made him leak the information in the first place.

"Every day I'm working on something I can be proud of," he said. "I actually live a surprisingly free life."