For the second year in a row, a young American whistleblower alarmed at the unfettered and at times cynical deployment of power by the world’s foremost superpower has been voted the Guardian’s person of the year.
Edward Snowden, who leaked an estimated 200,000 files that exposed the extensive and intrusive nature of phone and internet surveillance and intelligence gathering by the US and its western allies, was the overwhelming choice of more than 2,000 people who voted.
The NSA whistleblower garnered 1,445 votes. In a distant second, from a list of 10 candidates chosen by Guardian writers and editors, cameMarco Weber and Sini Saarela, the Greenpeace activists who spearheaded the oil rig protest over Russian Arctic drilling. They received 314 votes. Pope Francis gained 153 votes, narrowly ahead of blogger and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe, who received 144. Snowden’s victory was as decisive as Chelsea Manning’s a year earlier.
It is strange to think now, but a little more than six months ago, virtually no one had heard of Snowden, and few people outside the US would have been able to identify what the initials NSA stood for. Though internet privacy was beginning to emerge as an issue, few people had any idea of the extent to which governments and their secretive auxiliaries were able to trawl, sift, collect and scrutinise the personal digital footprints of millions of private individuals.
All that changed in May when Snowden left Hawaii for Hong Kong, where he met Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, and independent film-maker Laura Poitras, and handed over materials that blew the lid on spying technologies, some of which were truly stranger than fiction: a dragnet programme to scoop up digital activities direct from the servers of the biggest US tech companies; a tap on fibreoptic cables to gather huge amounts of data flowing in and out of the UK; a computer program to vacuum up phone records of millions of Americans; a codebreaking effort to crack the encryption system that underpins the safety and security of the internet.