In May 2012, Edward Snowden, a disillusioned information technology contractor for the National Security Agency, told his supervisors that he needed to take some sick leave. Instead, he vanished, taking with him a trove of documents detailing the agency's electronic surveillance efforts around the globe.
Snowden eventually connected with Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker. The first document Snowden sent was an 18-page document detailing how NSA tapped into fiber-optic cables to listen in on telephones around the world — convinced her that this was a bombshell story. But Snowden had much more, including evidence that NSA and big internet companies had collaborated in a secret program called PRISM [source: Harding].
Poitras eventually helped connect Snowden — who thought his revelations might be too big for one journalist — with Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for the Guardian, and Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman. Eventually, both papers won Pulitzer Prizes for their stories. Poitras, who shared in the Pulitzer, also won a 2015 Academy Award for her documentary on Snowden, "Citizenfour" [source: Harris].
The revelations stimulated impassioned public debate about the balance between personal privacy and national security, and led Congress to pass legislation ending the bulk gathering of Americans' phone records, one of the practices Snowden revealed [source: Siddiqui].