Snowden and the NSA: A Brief Guide for Students

A Brief Guide for Students about the Controversy Surrounding Edward Snowden and the NSA

The world’s attention turned to concerns of privacy, surveillance, and American rights in June when former National Security Agency (NSA) employee Edward Snowden leaked a series of top-secret documents to the media. While the extent of US surveillance is still not entirely clear and Snowden himself is still under investigation, there are a number of key moments in this story that American citizens—including young students—should understand.Snowden

  • The story breaks when The Guardian releases an order sent to Verizon Communications from the FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court).  This document shows that the FISC requested phone record metadata for local and international calls made within the US.
  • One day later, The Guardian and The Washington Post publish Snowden’s information about PRISM, a secret surveillance program that allegedly gave the NSA real-time access to web searches, email, and Internet traffic from American citizens without their knowledge or consent.
  • Over the next several weeks, The Guardian and other publications report on Boundless Informant, a system that uses information from telephone and computer networks to create a detailed map of the country, as well as accusations that the US has monitored, hacked into, and intercepted communications between people in China, Hong Kong, and American branches of European Union offices.
  • People from opposing political parties have very different reactions to the information released and to Edward Snowden’s actions.  Snowden receives support and criticism from prominent Republican and Democratic politicians and figures.  Those who oppose him call him a “hacker,” “spy,” and “traitor,” while supporters laud him as a “whistle-blower,” “patriot,” and “hero.”

Though reactions to Snowden’s actions have been mixed, it’s important for American citizens of all ages to think carefully about the information he released and what it means for our country. The information the public now has on the US government’s actions call American ideals and rights into question.  For students who are in the midst of learning about the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other revolutionary American documents, these revelations can have a powerful impact on their understanding of American culture and today’s society.

As politicians and citizens debate the secrecy of government, the potential value of surveillance, and the American right to privacy, students should also carefully consider their own opinions on these topics.  Today’s students are coming of age in an era of unprecedented issues and concerns regarding communication, technology, and privacy—and it’s important for them to think carefully about what it means when their information is used by other people, corporations, and the government.


Further Resources for You: 50 Journal Prompt Ideas for Kids: Right to Privacy