In early June, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden jump-started a national debate on government spying when he leaked information about several top-secret mass surveillance programs in the U.S. and Britain. Snowden fled his home in Hawaii ahead of the bombshell disclosures under the correct assumption that his government would not be pleased. He went first to Hong Kong and then to Russia, where he remains at press time (at least as far as we know).
In addition to releasing information about the collection of telephone metadata, Snowden revealed details of an Internet surveillance program called Prism. The resulting avalanche of articles, led by the London Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, sparked an international conversation about privacy, security, and government spying. While President Barack Obama insisted that he would not be “scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” the commander in chief called Snowden’s leaks “damaging” and defended the surveillance apparatus. “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy,” he explained at a June 7 press conference. Days later, federal prosecutors charged Snowden with espionage and theft of government property.
What follows is what we knew before the NSA scandal broke, why even folks with “nothing to hide” should be concerned about privacy protections, and what ordinary civilians can do to protect the secrecy of their day-to-day business.
Five Alarming Things We Already Knew About the NSA, Surveillance, and Privacy Before Snowden
Long before Edward Snowden bought his one-way ticket to Hong Kong, alert Americans should have known their privacy was under attack. Here are five facts about government surveillance and corporate cooperation that should not have been news to those paying attention.
1. Edward Snowden was not the first NSA whistleblower.
Before Snowden became a household name, there was Thomas Drake, a NSA senior executive and whistleblower. Drake was indicted in 2010 under the Espionage Act after publicly revealing that a secret NSA data collection program might be snooping illegally on Americans. (He pled guilty to one small charge of misusing the agency’s computer system and was sentenced to one year of probation and some community service.)
Then there was NSA crypto-mathematician William Binney and analyst J. Kirk Wiebe. Each (after they had quit the agency) had his home raided by the FBI in 2007, when they were suspected of being the sources for a 2005 New York Times story about the NSA’s Bush-era warrantless wiretapping program. Binney and Wiebe were never charged with a crime, though both had their security clearance revoked.
After Snowden’s leaks were made public, Binney told The Daily Caller that the NSA may have its mitts on more than just “metadata,” information about makers and recipients of the calls. He said the agency likely has audio of telephone calls as well. “I don’t think they’re recording all of it,” he said. “There are about 3 billion phone calls made within the USA every day. And then around the world, there are something like 10 billion a day. But while they may not record anywhere near all of that, what they do is take their target list, which is somewhere on the order of 500,000 to a million people. They look through these phone numbers, and they target those, and that’s what they record.”
These three whistleblowers share a lawyer, Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, who explained to USA Today in June that the NSA doesn’t take kindly to employees complaining about illegal activity through official internal channels. “The inspector general was the one who gave their names to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act,” she said. “They were all targets of a federal criminal investigation, and Tom [Drake] ended up being prosecuted—and it was for blowing the whistle.”
Warnings about NSA surveillance were not limited to internal whistleblowers. Senators such as Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) were sounding the alarm as early as 2009 that the government was secretly grabbing sensitive information about Americans from private businesses, using a creative interpretation of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which requires the government to certify that all the information it requests pertains to ongoing terrorism inquiries.
In 2006 then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) succinctly explained the problem with these information dragnets. He told CBS News in a television interview that “if I know every single phone call you made, I’m able to determine every single person you talked to, I can get a pattern about your life that’s very very intrusive.” The vice president was notably silent about Snowden’s revelations—except when he was advising Ecuador against giving the leaker asylum.
2. This isn’t the first national conversation about telecommunication companies coughing up customer information to the government.
Americans have known about industry collaboration with the security state for long enough that it was a mini-controversy before Barack Obama became president. In early 2008, Obama came under sharp criticism from elements of his base when he shifted his position on “telecom immunity”—legal protection from lawsuits by customers angry about having their data shared with law enforcement. As a presidential candidate, Obama initially opposed telecom immunity, then voted for a bill providing it.