Edward Snowden was all over the news when I graduated high school in 2013. It was still surprising, though, when our salutatorian stood up and made his speech about the Snowden case — one in which a former government contracted employee had leaked classified information from the National Security Agency. By that point, the U.S. had already filed espionage charges against Snowden, and he would soon make his fated trip to Moscow. The portrait our salutatorian painted was of a hero who had martyred himself for the truth. To us, high school graduates taking life’s next step — equally anxious to leave this town in the dust and never leave — Snowden’s plight struck a chord. We were young idealists searching for a cause worth sacrificing for, not suppressed by “the man,” but acting according to our personal moral code. Each person here has agency and impact, and all that is needed is the courage to take the plunge. In the crowd, one confused father turned to another and whispered, “Why is he valorizing a traitor?”

The scandal started when the Guardian published a classified court order directing Verizon to transfer all its telephone data to the National Security Agency on an “ongoing daily basis.” It was further disclosed that the NSA tapped into servers for companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to survey online communication in a data mining program known as Prism. This news caused public outrage as, essentially, the U.S. government was spying on its people and infringing on fundamental privacy rights. Ex-C.I.A. and former NSA computer analyst Edward Snowden was identified as the whistleblower. Snowden fled to Hong Kong but facing extradition, boarded a plane again to end up in Moscow, where he was granted asylum. He is charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified intelligence information to an unauthorized person. 

In interviews, Snowden has turned down the label of hero, claiming that he was acting out of self-interest because he did not want to live under or help sustain a world in which every virtual action is scrutinized by the government. As Snowden explained “I grew up with the understanding that the world I lived in was one where people enjoyed a sort of freedom to communicate with each other in privacy, without it being monitored, without it being measured or analyzed or sort of judged by these shadowy figures or systems, any time they mention anything that travels across public lines.” 

It is hard to overlook the fact that his actions did make Snowden famous overnight. If looking for a rush or a release from an anonymous existence, Snowden found it. In the event that there was the intent of payback, Snowden succeeded in the most public, drag-through-the-mud kind of way. His story will hit the screen in 2016  with Joseph Gordon-Levitt portraying the tragic hero. 

Regardless of the possible sub-motivations and what he says, Edward Snowden has been championed as a privacy rights activist and hero. He has been granted multiple awards including the Stuggart Peace Prize, the Right Livelihood Award and the Sam Adams Award, commemorating his dedication to the truth, freedom and government transparency. The impact of the whistleblower has been huge, referred to as “the Snowden effect.” The leaks have had global impact. It was revealed that the NSA had also surveilled German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, causing tensions between the U.S. and its European allies. Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters reported to have been secretly collecting information as well and sharing it with the NSA. Such allegation compelled governments, including those of the U.S., Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom, to conduct extensive reviews of their intelligence agencies.  

Legal strides were taken this summer when President Barack Obama signed the USA Freedom Act, a bill restricting NSA collection of American phone records. There is also pressure to address the question of online surveillance, so relevant to the technology age.  

Though not exclusive to the younger generation, this issue appeals directly to those who grew up with cyber culture. Often cautioned that anything posted can be tracked, many still perceive virtual identities as providing anonymity or at least control over what and who one chooses to share information with. This illusion of privacy was shattered when Snowden came forward. Many were already suspicious of the government’s role in this realm, and what Snowden did was start the dialogue on a modern controversial issue.

People often take one of two sides on Snowden: one is that the leaking of classified information jeopardized national security and was a selfish, unpatriotic move; the other is that this was an exposure of government abuse of power and defense of democratic values. 

The ultimate judgement will likely determine Snowden’s fate. On Oct. 29 the European Union Parliament voted on a resolution calling to grant Snowden asylum and to “consequently prevent extradition or rendition by third parties, in recognition of his status as whistle-blower and international human rights defender.” Reflective of the continued fear of mass surveillance in Europe, this decision is a way of establishing it as a wrong. 

This would put an end to Snowden’s exile in Russia, where his case has undoubtedly been politicized. As investigative journalist and Russian security services expert Andrei Soldatov noted, “Snowden’s clearly being exploited — after all, many repressive measures on the Internet in Russia were presented to Russians as a response to Snowden’s revelations. 

For instance, the legislation to relocate the servers of global platforms to Russia by September of this year, to make them available for the Russian secret services, was presented as a measure to assure the security of Russian citizens’ personal data.” Snowden has spoken out against Russia’s crackdown, but his words will have no effect on this occasion. In an ironic twist, Snowden jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The U.S. is likely to take a hard line on Snowden and not entirely because of national security. Put simply, Snowden made the U.S. look bad. There is a desire for revenge and also to use Snowden to set a precedent. Agencies want to make it clear that betrayal will not be tolerated.  The New York Times, for one, wrote in favor of granting Snowden clemency or “at least a substantially reduced punishment.” It will be interesting to see what decision the U.S. government ultimately makes when Snowden returns to the country, of his own volition or not. Will the ultimate message be that there are times in which democracy needs to be sacrificed, not even for security concerns but to preserve American world image?

Edward Snowden has pushed the question of American democracy into dangerous territory. If the U.S. wants to position itself as the land of the free, democratic standards have to be upheld. The reality of the situation is that to maintain its status, there will be inconsistencies. However, basic human rights should always be protected, and as a democracy, there has to be a level of transparency in government. We will always fall short of the ideal, but that just means we have to strive for it and attempt to make up the difference. So which one is it — is Snowden a hero or a traitor? Certainly he is both. What matters now is which side the U.S. government will choose to emphasize.