In 2013, US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden stunned the world with revelations that America’s massive spy apparatus was secretly sucking communications and private data from people around the world, from the lowest poster on social media to phone calls from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Snowden showed that no one was immune to the electronic indiscretions of the National Security Agency, let alone Americans, whose private communications were supposed to be constitutionally protected.
Ten years later, Snowden is in exile in Moscow and the US Secret Service still collects huge amounts of private information stored and transmitted electronically.
But his revelations had a lasting impact, advancing privacy protection in Europe and America and accelerating the use of encryption.
After Snowden’s leaks, “in almost every Western democracy there has been a historic debate about the relationship between citizens and state mass surveillance programs, about whether the surveillance of these programs was adequate,” said Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union and Snowden’s attorney.
– Global Digital Net
A 29-year-old NSA system administrator, Snowden downloaded thousands of NSA and CIA documents showing the extent of the global data-gathering net that took off after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Documents Snowden gave to reporters at secret meetings in Hong Kong showed how US intelligence worked with Britain’s GCHQ and other agencies to build files on billions of people without any grounds for suspicion.
They showed that the United States was able to access the phones of allied leaders and that the NSA had a program called Prism which collected data from users of Internet giants like Google and Facebook, with and without their OK.
The NSA collected call data from major cell provider Verizon and routinely extracted data from public companies, hospitals and universities.
He also revealed that the GCHQ with the help of the NSA sucked up all the traffic passing through the world’s major undersea communications cables.
GCHQ also surreptitiously took millions of photos from people’s computer cameras while they were on Yahoo webcam chats.
The problem, Snowden said, was not the justification for fighting terrorism, but the fact that it was covert programs with virtually no limits.
“The public must decide whether these types of programs and policies are good or bad,” he said.
– Indignation on all sides –
The revelations have outraged the public but also US intelligence, which has accused Snowden of devastating counterterrorism programs and aiding America’s enemies.
US spy agencies declined to list the damage, however, noting only that their surveillance had prevented dozens of attacks.
In 2016, National Intelligence Director James Clapper pointed to the main damage: Snowden made the NSA’s job harder by pushing internet and mobile communications companies, app makers and others to encrypt their services.
– Stricter rules –
For Wizner, the leaks have bolstered civil liberties, even though more internet companies than ever are collecting user data.
Snowden effectively forced the White House, Congress, and the courts to backtrack on espionage activities they secretly approved, revising NSA authorities and forcing the cancellation of some programs.
“Congress, for the first time since the 1970s, has legislated to reduce rather than expand supervisory authorities,” Wizner said.
In 2018, the European Union implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) aimed at empowering US companies like Google and Facebook to freely collect and use user data.
“Snowden’s revelations about global surveillance have had a tangible impact on the internet privacy debate in Europe,” wrote Gus Rossi, director of Responsible Technology and the Omidyar Group.
Under the GDPR, last month Facebook owner Meta was fined 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion) by Ireland for breaching Facebook’s data protection. the EU, because the data it collects on European users and transfers to the US was not safe from the NSA and CIA.
– Exile in Moscow-
Now 39, Snowden is still advocating for more privacy protections. Living in Moscow with his American wife and two sons, both born in Russia, he earns a living with paid speaking and consulting.
He cannot leave Russia for lack of another safe haven and is wanted by the United States for a felony under the Espionage Act.
“He would rather be somewhere else. And we both wished there was another option than a maximum security prison cell and living in Russia,” Wizner said.
– Still in danger –
Marcy Wheeler, a freelance journalist specializing in the intelligence-law nexus, is more skeptical of the benefits of Snowden’s revelations.
The ever-adaptable NSA accomplishes what it needs “by other means,” she said.
“The most significant surveillance targeting Americans … is carried out by the FBI and, with even less surveillance, by states and localities,” she said.