National security leaders in Washington would love to throw Edward Snowden in jail.
But in the Internet activist community, the self-proclaimed whistleblower has turned into an overnight hero — lauded as a truth-teller up against the national security spy apparatus.
On Twitter, Facebook and websites, supporters are cheering Snowden, who this weekend identified himself as the source of information about classified National Security Agency surveillance programs. They view him as part of a long line of famous leakers and activists such as Daniel Ellsberg, Julian Assange and Aaron Swartz who sought to expose government wrongdoing.
The community holding up Snowden represents a strain of young tech geeks and academics who are distrustful of corporate and big government overreach. But, as with the fight against SOPA anti-piracy legislation, it is a group that has shown it can be adept at using online tools to rally support for causes.
“It was a singular act of bravery,” said Northwestern University philosophy professor Peter Ludlow, a vocal supporter of hacker Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old Reddit co-founder who killed himself in January as he faced up to 35 years in prison on charges he tried to download millions of articles from an academic database. His death has spurred efforts to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which critics say allows for overly broad prosecutions.
Snowden, 29, an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, came forward on Sunday afternoon to say he was the source of the revelations about NSA’s collection of phone records and surveillance of Internet activity. He said he is staying at a hotel in Hong Kong and hopes to win asylum in a country like Iceland.
Facebook employee Dwight Crow created a Crowdtilt crowdfunding campaign to raise $15,000 to “Reward Edward Snowden for courageously leaking NSA docs.” Crow himself ponied up $1,000 and had collected more than $7,500 from more than 160 contributors as of 3 p.m. on Monday.
“We should set a precedent by rewarding this type of extremely courageous behavior,” Crow wrote in his plea. “It’s definitely apparent that legal fees may soon be a big part of his future, but I don’t care how he uses the funds raised, whether it’s for a business-class trip to Iceland or just to pay his hotel bills, it’s a reward that I believe we should band together and provide him with.”
One response on Crow’s Facebook page: “Doing what he did took an insane amount of courage, he’s a Booze Allen drone with the heart of a hacker, who woulda thunk it?”
At WhiteHouse.gov, a petition calling on President Barack Obama to pardon the security contractor had more than 22,000 signatures as of 3 p.m. on Monday.
“Edward Snowden is a national hero and should be immediately issued a full, free and absolute pardon for any crimes he has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs,” said the petition, which requires 100,000 signatures by July 9 to elicit a White House response.