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Meet the NSA leaker
04:21 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Unclear where Snowden will wind up, after leaving Hong Kong for Russia

Edward Snowden, 29, is the source of leaks over an NSA surveillance program

"The public needs to decide whether these programs ... are right or wrong," he says

CNN  — 

He’s a high school dropout who worked his way into the most secretive computers in U.S. intelligence as a defense contractor – only to blow those secrets wide open by spilling details of classified surveillance programs.

Now, Edward Snowden might never live in the United States as a free man again. Where he may end up was a source of global speculation Sunday after he flew from Hong Kong to Russia, his ultimate destination unknown to most.

Snowden has revealed himself as the source of documents outlining a massive effort by the U.S. National Security Agency to track cell phone calls and monitor the e-mail and Internet traffic of virtually all Americans.

Snowden, 29, said he just wanted the public to know what the government was doing.

“Even if you’re not doing anything wrong you’re being watched and recorded,” he said.

Snowden told The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom that he had access to the full rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community and undercover assets around the world.

“I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watching what’s happening, and goes, ‘This is something that’s not our place to decide.’ The public needs to decide whether these programs or policies are right or wrong,” he said.

Snowden fled to Hong Kong after copying one last set of documents and telling his boss he needed to go away for medical treatment.

From Hawaii to hiding

Before his leak of U.S. intelligence, Snowden was living “in paradise.”

He worked for a major U.S. government contractor in Hawaii, earning a six-figure salary and enjoying the scenic state with his girlfriend.

He told The Guardian he never received a high school diploma and didn’t complete his computer studies at a community college. Instead, he joined the Army in 2003 but was discharged after breaking both legs in an accident.

Snowden said he later worked as a security guard for the NSA and then took a computer security job with the CIA. He left that job in 2009 and moved on to Booz Allen Hamilton, where he worked as a contractor for the government in Hawaii.

He told the Guardian that he left for Hong Kong on May 20 without telling his family or his girlfriend what he planned.

“You’re living in Hawaii, in paradise and making a ton of money. What would it take to make you leave everything behind?” he said in the Guardian interview.

“I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

Some residents on Oahu island are glad Snowden left.

“From a Hawaii standpoint, good riddance, thanks for leaving,” Ralph Cossa told CNN affiliate KHON.

“I’m sure the guy had an overactive Mother Teresa gene and thought he was going to go out and save America from Americans, but in reality he was very foolish,” Cossa said. “We expect the government to honor our privacy, but we also expect our government to protect us from terrorist attacks.”

Opinion: Snowden is a hero

The fallout

President Barack Obama insists his administration is not spying on U.S. citizens – rather, it’s only looking for information on terrorists.

Booz Allen Hamilton, the government contractor that employed Snowden, said Snowden had worked at the firm for less than three months.

“News reports that this individual has claimed to have leaked classified information are shocking, and if accurate, this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm,” the company said in the statement. The firm said it will cooperate with authorities in their investigation.

According to the Guardian, the only time Snowden became emotional during hours of interviews was when he thought about what might happen to his relatives – many of whom work for the U.S. government.

“The only thing I fear is the harmful effects on my family, who I won’t be able to help anymore,” he said. “That’s what keeps me up at night.”

As for his concerns about his country, “the greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change.”

READ: Some shrug at NSA snooping: Privacy’s already dead

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Official: Damage assessment over U.S. intelligence-gathering leaks

CNNs Matt Smith and Holly Yan contributed to this report.