On the morning of June 10, 2013, journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras released a video on the Guardian website, unveiling the identity of the NSA whistleblower responsible for one of the most significant leaks in modern history. The video began with the words, “My name is Ed Snowden.”
At the time, William Fitzgerald, a 27-year-old policy employee at Google, knew he wanted to assist but was uncertain about how he could contribute. Snowden was undoubtedly one of the most wanted individuals globally, as the confidential documents he shared with Greenwald, Poitras, and the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill exposed an expansive US government surveillance program with global reach, involving major tech companies. Working at Google since 2008, based in its Hong Kong office, Fitzgerald impulsively emailed Greenwald from his personal Gmail account.
The email, retrieved by the Guardian, stated, “If looking for alternative options to protect Edward within Hong Kong, I am on hand to assist.” Hours later, Fitzgerald found himself waiting in the lobby of the Hong Kong W Hotel, prepared to meet Greenwald and introduce him to Robert Tibbo and Jonathan Man – the men who became Snowden’s legal representatives and sheltered him in the homes of Tibbo’s Sri Lankan refugee clients.
Now, 10 years since the initial publication of the Snowden files by the Guardian, Fitzgerald, who remained at Google until 2018, feels ready to share his small role in the story. Described merely as a “longtime reader” of Greenwald’s in the book recounting Greenwald’s week-long stay in Hong Kong, meeting with Snowden and handling the aftermath of the disclosures, Fitzgerald acknowledges that his motivation for sharing his story isn’t entirely selfless. He desires his involvement to be recognized in history as the “longtime reader” who was willing to risk everything, much like Snowden himself.
According to Fitzgerald, the internet and tech industry, including his employer, felt vastly different in 2013 compared to today. Following the Arab Spring, there was hope and optimism that the tools connecting the world could be a force for social good. However, the Snowden files painted a darker picture, exposing mass surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA), which used these very tools to spy on the users of the tech companies supposedly empowering them.
The NSA files suggested that certain tech firms, including Google, Facebook, and Apple, were aware of the surveillance. Although these companies vehemently denied involvement and even took a stand against government spying, partnering with organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation to enhance internet encryption, Fitzgerald found it challenging to reconcile Snowden’s disclosures with his optimism about the internet’s potential. Nevertheless, he believed the authenticity of the documents. When he discovered that Greenwald was in Hong Kong, Fitzgerald eagerly requested a meeting, despite indications that Google knew about the NSA’s direct access to its servers for user data. By the time Snowden revealed his identity, Fitzgerald and Greenwald had already planned to meet.
When Fitzgerald offered his assistance to protect Snowden, Greenwald asked if he was a lawyer. Although Fitzgerald was not, he had connections to a prominent human rights lawyer through a master’s program at Hong Kong University. Greenwald trusted his intuition and accepted Fitzgerald’s offer. At the time, Greenwald didn’t remember knowing if Fitzgerald worked for Google; he only knew that Snowden needed help. Snowden himself had urged Greenwald to focus on reporting rather than protecting him, leading to his decision to reveal himself as the source without legal counsel. Despite not having met Fitzgerald before, Greenwald believed in his intentions. Given the skepticism surrounding the situation, Greenwald acknowledged that they didn’t know what the US government, CIA, or Hong Kong authorities were doing, so when someone like Fitzgerald offered to help, suspicion was natural.
However, Greenwald wasn’t surprised that a Google employee would support Snowden, as it aligned with the original ethos of Silicon Valley – a commitment to preserving free expression and privacy. For instance, Google had established a “free expression” team in various regions to advise on policies promoting a free and open internet. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald noticed a gradual shift in the company culture as time went on. Google stopped promoting its transparency report to the media, free expression advocates were replaced by business-focused executives, and the controversial Project Maven, a Department of Defense drone project, raised concerns when Google signed on to build artificial intelligence for it (later withdrawing under employee pressure in 2018).
Fitzgerald observed a slow erosion of the values Google claimed to care about, and this led him to found The Worker Agency, an advocacy and communications firm that represents a Google worker union among its clients. He believes that Google is not alone in pursuing government contracts, as other tech giants such as Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM have also sought or secured multimillion-dollar deals to develop surveillance tools for various entities, including the Pentagon.
While opinions differ on the extent of the tech industry’s evolution since Snowden’s revelations, Fitzgerald and Greenwald argue that it has increasingly succumbed to government pressures to share user data or censor content. On the other hand, the director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, Ben Wizner, credits tech companies for strengthening their legal defense against government data requests. Before Snowden, companies typically complied with such orders, but now there is evidence of pushback.
Nonetheless, everyone agrees that one of Snowden’s most significant legacies is the public’s awareness of the limits of privacy and the widespread adoption of encryption for online communication. The leaked NSA files prompted tech companies to implement end-to-end encryption, securing communications so that only the sender and recipient can access them. Encryption has become the default in many messaging apps, such as Signal, WhatsApp, and iMessage. According to Wizner, Snowden is most proud of the fact that “secure and encrypted communications are no longer the weird province of computer-savvy geeks but are tools that are used by and available to the masses.”
Ten years after Snowden revealed himself, Fitzgerald has dedicated his time to holding tech firms accountable through his communications firm. He remains proud of his minor role in Snowden’s story, as he believes his actions contributed to preventing Snowden from facing legal repercussions and ensured that he did not end up in custody.