Edward Snowden, celebrity?


Edward Snowden (AP Photo)

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor whose leaks about government spying operations shook the world over the past eight months, is ready for his close-up.

On Monday, he's scheduled to talk about the leaks as part of an American Civil Liberties Union panel at South by Southwest -- the notoriously media-heavy series of music, film and interative festivals -- via a live video stream from Russia. But this event is just the next in a string of appearances that seem to be aimed at elevating Snowden's public profile.

Snowden did some media interviews after the leaks first broke. For months afterward, however, he stayed largely out of the spotlight in Russia, where he was granted a year of temporary asylum. While the media picked apart his online identity and speculated about his relationship with the girlfriend he left behind in Hawaii, Snowden laid low -- letting the document releases that he facilitated speak for themselves. Only the occasional detail about his life in Russia emerged.

But that has changed in recent months.

In December, Snowden gave an exclusive interview to Barton Gellman for The Washington Post in which he declared his personal mission accomplished. Then in January he joined the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation -- where colleagues include journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, as well as Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Within a few weeks,  Snowden did his first television interview with a German station. On Friday, his testimony on NSA spying to the European Parliament was posted online.

"I think he quite purposely stayed in the background for a long time because he didn't want to overshadow the larger surveillance issues," says Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. "But now we're at at different place in this debate, and I think he feels like it's time for him to speak up more."

Snowden may also be hoping a higher profile will help him escape an increasingly complicated diplomatic situation in Russia. He reportedly requested asylum from more than 20 countries after being revealed as the source of press leaks concerning NSA spying programs. He ended up in Russia  after a brief time holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room, but that has always been somewhat of an odd fit because of that nation's strained relationship with Internet freedom.

He's made some overtures in the past that suggest he would prefer to be elsewhere. In December, Snowden published an "open letter to the people of Brazil" in a local newspaper offering to help their government investigate allegations of U.S. spying if he received permanent political asylum. "Until a country grants me permanent political asylum, the U.S. government will continue to interfere with my ability to speak out," he wrote. With tensions between Russia and the rest of the world rising due to the situation in Ukraine's Crimea region, Snowden may be even more eager to relocate now.

But, regardless of his motivations, Snowden's participation in the ongoing debate over his leaks is bound to keep capturing headlines. And with good reason, argues Timm. "He has important things to say in this debate, and nobody knows these issues better than he does."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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