Yes, the government has probably seen any sexts or nude photos you've sent along to a significant other. If you believe the word of Edward Snowden, NSA employees regularly pass around intimate nude shots that are intercepted, along with endless amounts of other data, as part of the US government’s vast surveillance efforts. As noted by Ars Technica, Snowden made the claims during a marathon, seven-hour interview with The Guardian when asked about specific instances of power abuse he’d observed during his time as an NSA contractor. "You’ve got young enlisted guys, 18 to 22 years old. They’ve suddenly been thrust into a position of extraordinary responsibility where they now have access to all of your private records.
"These are seen as sort of the fringe benefits of surveillance positions."
Snowden said these individuals often "stumble across something that is completely unrelated to their work" — like a nude photo of someone in "a sexually compromising situation." If the subject proves attractive enough, these workers are all too eager to let others in on the fun. "So what do they do? They turn around in their chair and they show their coworker." That sets off a chain where the most raw and private types of content — assumed to be part of a private conversation — become water cooler topics at NSA HQ. "Sooner or later, this person’s whole life has been seen by all these people. It’s never reported. Nobody ever knows about it because the auditing of these systems is incredibly weak." To be fair, this is the sort of accusation that's nearly impossible for the NSA to thoroughly dispute or discredit. And Snowden hedged slightly, saying "it could be more or less frequent" depending on the maturity level of employees.
As for coming home, Edward Snowden has repeatedly stated that he won't be returning to US soil any time soon. The NSA whistleblower is adamant that President Obama's administration would never grant him a fair trial for leaking classified intel that led to startling disclosures about government surveillance and mass data collection. But he also seems to be at peace with the worst-case outcome, one that would see the former government contractor captured and jailed for espionage. "If I end up in chains in Guantanamo, I can live with that," Snowden said.
Obviously that statement is a bit extreme; the well-spoken computer specialist, still under asylum in Russia, has never refrained from theatrics. But Snowden's point, that a heavy-handed trial and just one judge could quickly throw him behind bars for life, is a concern he's frequently raised ever since fleeing the US. "I’m much happier here in Russia than I would be facing an unfair trial in which I can’t even present a public-interest defense to a jury of my peers," he said. "We’ve asked the government again and again to provide for a fair trial, and they’ve declined."
"I haven't really been scared like I thought I might be."
During the interview, Snowden also touched on "bullshit" accusations that he's in cahoots with the Russian government, whether he's being watched at his temporary living quarters ("I think it’s reasonable to assume that I am under surveillance") and George Orwell's 1984. "Popular to contrary belief, I don't think we're in a 1984 universe," Snowden said, being careful to stress that the potential is always there. "We should not bound ourselves to the limits of the author's imagination. Times have shown that the world is much more unpredictable and dangerous than that."
Above all else though, he had a message for professionals — journalists, doctors, accountants, etc. — tasked with protecting source and client confidentiality: beef up security, and use encryption. "What last year's revelations showed us was irrefutable evidence that unencrypted communications on the internet are no longer safe." The Guardian will publish its full interview with Snowden on Friday, but the video interview posted today is absolutely worth a watch.
Update, July 17th 2:03PM: The article has been updated to include additional details about NSA workers sharing intimate nude photos collected as part of US surveillance programs.