Three years ago today, the public learned about extensive surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Back then, the Guardian UK newspaper reported about a court order allowing the NSA to spy on U.S. citizens. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) summarized events from 2013:
"It started with a secret order written by the FISA court authorizing the mass surveillance of Verizon Business telephone records—an order that members of Congress quickly confirmed was similar to orders that had been issued every 3 months for years. Over the next year, we saw a steady drumbeat of damning evidence, creating a detailed, horrifying picture of an intelligence agency unrestrained by Congress and shielded from public oversight by a broken classification system. The leaks were thanks in large part to whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has been living in Russia for the last three years, unable to return to the United States for fear of spending his life behind bars..."
Since then, we've learned plenty about how extensive the government surveillance apparatus is and the lack of oversight. We've also learned about NSA code inserted in Android operating system software, the FISA Court and how it undermines the public's trust, the importance of metadata and how much it reveals about you (despite some politicians' claims otherwise), the unintended consequences from broad NSA surveillance, U.S. government spy agencies' goal to break all encryption methods, warrantless searches of U.S. citizens' phone calls and e-mail messages, the NSA's facial image data collection program, the data collection programs included ordinary (e.g., innocent) citizens besides legal targets, and while most hi-tech and telecommunications companies assisted the government with its spy programs, AT&T was probably the best collaborator. A scary, extensive list, eh?
Would the public have learned about all of this without the Snowden leaks? I doubt it. So, thanks to Edward Snowden.
And, this list doesn't include the attempt by the Justice Department to force a hi-tech company to build a "back door" into its products to break encryption. It's been a busy three years. The EFF concluded:
"The Snowden leaks caused a sea change in the policy landscape related to surveillance. EFF worked with dozens of coalition partners across the political spectrum to pass the USA Freedom Act, the first piece of legislation to rein in NSA spying in over thirty years—a bill that would have been unthinkable without the Snowden leaks. They also set the stage for a major showdown in Congress over Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, the controversial section of law set to expire in 2017 that the government claims authorizes much of the NSA’s Internet surveillance... Perhaps most importantly, the Snowden leaks published over the last three years have helped to realign a broken relationship between the intelligence community and the public. Whistleblowers often serve as a last-resort failsafe when there are no other methods of bringing accountability to secretive processes. The Snowden leaks have helped illuminate how the NSA was operating outside the law with near impunity, and this in turn drove an international conversation about the dangers of near-omniscient surveillance of our digital communications."
It's not over. The EFF compiled a list of 65 things we know thanks to the Snowden leaks, and a timeline of NSA domestic surveillance. And, Vice News has uncovered some of the documents that highlight the discussions among NSA and government officials about the privacy and Constitutional issues Mr. Snowden raised at the agency before the leaks:
"What's remarkable about this FOIA release, however, is that the NSA has admitted that it altered emails related to its discussions about Snowden. In a letter disclosed to VICE News Friday morning, Justice Department attorney Brigham Bowen said, "Due to a technical flaw in an operating system, some timestamps in email headers were unavoidably altered. Another artifact from this technical flaw is that the organizational designators for records from that system have been unavoidably altered to show the current organizations for the individuals in the To/From/CC lines of the header for the overall email, instead of the organizational designators correct at the time the email was sent."
Because none of the people interviewed by the NSA in the wake of the leaks said that "Snowden mentioned a specific NSA program," and "many" of the people interviewed "affirmed that he never complained about any NSA program," the NSA's counterintelligence chief concluded that these conversations about the Constitution and privacy did not amount to raising concerns about the NSA's spying activities. That was the basis for the agency's public assertions... In April 2014, the month after he testified before the European Parliament, Snowden again challenged the NSA's public narrative about his failure to raise concerns at the agency. In advance of the publication of the Vanity Fair story, the magazine posted a preview online on April 8. "The NSA... not only knows I raised complaints, but that there is evidence that I made my concerns known to the NSA's lawyers, because I did some of it through e-mail," he said."
The Vice News article also discussed the lack of whistle-blower protections for contractors like Mr. Snowden.
Citizens give their government certain powers to act on their behalf. Implicit in that decision is trust. Entrusted with those powers, a government (in a democracy) has an obligation to be transparent with its citizens.