Can Edward Snowden Hide His Face From the Internet?

Catching up on news from the weekend today, I ran across an interesting quote from Edward Snowden, taken from his mini-summit with representatives from human rights organizations and Wikileaks officials on Saturday—a quote that doesn’t appear to have gotten much pickup in the larger media. That quote, via a great post by Alan Chin writing for one of my favorite photo publications, BAGNotes, is this:

“The more photographed I am, understanding the technical capability that the US services have, the more dangerous my situation becomes.”

I have not seen this quotation in this form anywhere else, and Chin doesn’t list a source for it. But an account by a correspondent for the Slovenian newspaper Delo who attended the meeting in Moscow reports a similar statement (via Google Translate): “No, each photo for me means less security,” Snowden said in response to a request for photos from those in attendance, according to correspondent Polona Frelih. Ironically, Frelih posted the first new photos of Snowden seen since the leak to her Twitter account before being barred from taking any more. A few short video clips have also surfaced of Snowden speaking, along with similar stills from others in attendance.

The quote was interesting to me, coming from someone whose image has become one of the most published faces in global news in 2013. It’s always the same photo: a frame grab from the original Guardian video of Snowden made by filmmaker Laura Poitras in Hong Kong. Snowden wears glasses and a gray shirt. The lighting is soft, the DSLR video color palette familiar and muted. Even someone who consciously avoids following the news has probably been exposed to this image of Snowden’s face in some form, at least once.

I’ve heard a number of people say they were sick of seeing the same photograph of Snowden over the last month, as this story has developed. And I find it fascinating that, upon entering a situation in which he must have realized his potential to be photographed again was high, he chose an almost identical shirt to the one he wore in the Guardian video.

Chin points out that it’s not in fact the same shirt, just similar. He also assumes Snowden’s concern is with facial recognition systems that would become more accurate as more diverse source photographs of his face and appearance were fed into their algorithms. Making the systems more effective in locating him anywhere around the world, via a glimpse in a security camera video, or in the background of a tourist’s photo posted to Instagram, should he ever leave Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.

A young Edward Snowden

A young Edward Snowden

A corollary to this quote for me are the relatively few photos the internet has turned up of Snowden’s life prior to him becoming a public figure. There were a few parody album covers via one forum, a shoot with a photographer specializing in male models found in yet another forum post. But comparing this relative dearth to the hundreds of photos that anyone with 30 minutes to spare could surely locate of me, right now, it’s an impressive sign of Snowden’s intent on controlling the spread of his own likeness. He was was, after all, a programmer working for the NSA—someone who knew how to cover his tracks. It’s a level of care with his personal image that today is extremely rare—some may say impossible—and one he obviously seeks to continue, as his fate remains uncertain.