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5 Years After Snowden, Has Anything Changed?

The government still snoops on its own citizens, but we're more aware of it—and we can push back.

Edward SnowdenFriso Gentsch/dpa/picture-alliance/NewscomFive years ago The Guardian published the first of what would be a bombshell series of stories about how the United States (and several other Western countries) were engaged in the mass surveillance of their own citizens, collecting millions upon millions of telephone and internet records.

It wasn't the first time the feds' saw some of their secret tech surveillance exposed—you may recall the revelation of AT&T's secret room 641A, for example—but now Americans got provided evidence of how far-reaching this surveillance was. It became very clear that the targets included all of us.

The name of the source behind the story was initially kept secret, but he soon revealed himself to be a government contractor named Edward Snowden.

Since then, Snowden has become a household name—even as he remains stuck in Russia, wanted on espionage charges in the United States. The Guardian and The Washington Post won Pullitzer prizes in 2014 for their reporting based on the documents Snowden provided.

Five years later, it's worth looking at the legacy of Snowden's revelations.

The Snooping Hasn't Really Stopped—But There Have Been Changes: Among the revelations that emerged from Snowden's leaks was how much of the surveillance was based on secret interpretations of federal laws. Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act allowed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court to grant the feds approval to secretly collect information from third parties during terrorism investigations. The Department of Justice turned out to have secretly interpreted this section of the law as an authorization to collect the metadata records of millions upon millions of Americans.

This interpretation was so far afield of the law's intent that Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who crafted the PATRIOT Act, publicly denounced it. And released reports from the FISA Court indicated it sometimes was not fully aware of how extensive the federal data collection reached. Other courts subsequently ruled that this mass data collection was not authorized.

In 2015, Section 215 of the Patriot Act was set to sunset, and a pack of legislators—most famously Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)—moved to block it from being renewed. They succeeded, and it was replaced by the USA Freedom Act.

The USA Freedom Act did not, unfortunately, eliminate mass metadata collection. But it did set up actual guidelines that required government investigators to use specific search terms when attempting to look at metadata in records collected by phone companies. The new law also called for annual reports that give Americans a sense of how much secret surveillance is happening. The reports are vague and incomplete, but they're more than we were getting previously.

Americans Learned What Metadata Is and Why It Mattered: When Snowden's leaks first started, President Barack Obama and many lawmakers insisted that "Nobody is reading your email." This became a mantra among those trying to downplay Snowden's revelations.

It was a deliberate attempt to distract from the reality that we were all leaving electronic fingerprints everywhere we went and every time we communicated with each other. The government was collecting all our metadata—information about where, when, and to whom we were communicating. They were collecting everything but the conversations themselves.

Back in the days of Ma Bell, we thought of "metadata" as simply information about who we were calling and for how long we were talking. These days we all keep huge chunks of information about our lives on our computers, tablets, and smartphones. Experiments have demonstrated that, based on just your metadata, observers can reconstruct a good part of your life and your relationships with others.

This realization about how much privacy we're losing via our metadata has played out as we worry about government track our social media use—and as we become more aware of the ways that police (and not just federal police) are trying to keep track of our behavior through such tools as license plate readers and facial recognition.

Efforts to Push Forward with Increased Tech Surveillance Get Pushback: Many citizens and even lawmakers aren't accepting the idea that every form of surveillance that the government demands is necessary. Some states have passed laws requiring police to get warrants in order to track cellphone location data. The question of whether this tracking violated the Fourth Amendment is now under review by the Supreme Court.

Senators have warned the Department of Homeland Security about using facial recognition software to scan Americans boarding international flights. In California, lawmakers are currently considering legislation requiring police to get permission from their local government before implementing new surveillance technologies.

But other officials keep pushing and pushing to implement more surveillance tech, even as the public resists. Immigration enforcers want access to the data the feds have collected. Officials want to use facial recognition systems when monitoring protests via drones, and to combine such systems with police body cameras. Police in Miami Beach are willing to cause massive traffic jams in order to scan everybody's license plates while searching people with warrants. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to use facial recognition tools on cashless toll roads to identify drivers.

There are stories every day about officials wanting to use technology for surveillance. While some of the news coverage may fall on deaf ears, Snowden's information has been valuable to help people grasp that whenever the government starts spying, the surveillance will probably be broader and deeper than they actually tell us.

New Encryption Fights Begin: Back in the 1990s, the feds fretted about encryption on personal computers. Their efforts back then to limit our access to encryptionfailed.

Fears of terrorism having given new life to that old fight against encryption. Officials want access to locked phones or other secured devices belonging to people who have allegedly committed crimes, but encryption makes it harder for law enforcement to get in.

For many officials, the public push has been to try to force tech companies to compromise data security by creating so-called "backdoors" that bypass tech encryption or to otherwise provide access on demand. In the wake of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, the FBI had a court fight with Apple over its efforts to force the company to give it access to an iPhone in one terrorist's possession. While Apple resisted, the FBI managed to get access with the assistance of a third party. It turned out later that the FBI was deliberately looking for a fight to try to establish a precedent.

Privacy and technology experts have warned us over and over that compromising encryption means rendering all of us vulnerable to breaches from anybody who gets their hands on these encryption keys or figures out how to mimic these access mechanisms. Weakening encryption would make everyone susceptible not just to government snoops—ours or those working for malicious foreign governments—but to hackers with identity theft or other crimes in mind.

Many officials demanding an encryption bypass simply refuse to entertain the possibility that this would expose citizens to greater threats. Nor are they understand the ways Snowden's disclosures have made Americans more skeptical about giving them access in the first place.

But tech companies keep pushing for stronger mechanisms to keep users' data secure, regardless of the wishes of government officials. Snowden's own email provider, Lavabit, shut down in 2013 rather than comply with the government's demands for the encryption key that would let it access Snowden's communications. Founder Ladar Levison resurrected the company in 2017 with end-to-end encryption that makes it much harder for the government to force its way in.

The Trumpification of the Surveillance Fight: After Donald Trump became president, the surveillance fight took a strange turn. The FBI had gotten the FISA Court's authorization to snoop on Trump campaign aides in order to probe connections with foreign countries—Russia in particular. As the special investigation plays out, Trump and his supporters have decried the use of these secret surveillance tools against people close to him.

This could have been an opportunity to discuss how the federal government engages in secret snooping against the citizenry in general, how this could be corrupted for political purposes, and why that would be a good reason to limit the feds' surveillance powers.

But that conversation did not happen. Indeed, some of the people crying the loudest that the "deep state" is coming after Trump also believe that Snowden committed treason by exposing federal surveillance. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a conservative lawmaker who frequently insists the FBI's investigation of the president is politically motivated, is a huge fan of government surveillance on you. He just doesn't like it when Trump's the target.

This preference for simply protecting Trump rather than having an actual surveillance debate became clear when Section 702 of the FISA Amendments came up for renewal last year. Section 702 is another law that's been commandeered for domestic surveillance even though its stated purpose is to fight foreign terrorism and espionage. During the debate over renewing it, civil rights activists and privacy-minded lawmakers tried to force reforms. But despite all the yelling about spying on Trump that was taking place at the exact same time, most Republican lawmakers (Nunes included) voted not only to renew Section 702 but to expand its ability to target Americans.

Utlimately, Snowden's biggest accomplishments were to bringing the surveillance debate to the forefront and to encourage tech companies to ramp up their encryption and other security efforts. In the July Reason, Elizabeth Nolan Brown explains how you can encrypt your own communications. The fact that strong encryption tools are becoming more available to average internet users is one thing we can all thank Snowden for.

Photo Credit: Friso Gentsch/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

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  • John||

    Sure things have changed. The FBI and IC are now spying on Trump. And Brian Doherty writing in reason assured us that that was totally different and just fine.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Paranoid, gullible right-wingers are among my favorite right-wingers.

  • Quixote||

    John is of course right that our great national leader is being insidiously spied on by agents of the deep state. On the other hand, we have finally succeeded in criminalizing inappropriately deadpan "parody" emails, despite the misguided public-relations efforts of certain fringe elements in the "free speech" community (ha-ha-ha). And we did this through an excellent process that sheds some light on what awaits Mr. Snowden upon his return to America. See the documentation of our nation's leading criminal "satire" case at:

    https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com

  • Just Say'n||

    You're wrong, John. Reason has also embraced half-brained conspiracy theories to back-up their support for bureaucrats trying to undo the results of a free and fair election. It's so brave.

  • BYODB||

    The fact that seems absent from the discussion is that if they're willing and able to spy on a Presidential nominee than they literally give zero fucks about spying on you or me.

    You'll note that NYT and WP aren't at all interested in that angle, nor is anyone else writing for major outlets. You see, it's not the systematic violation of basic rights they take issue with, it's the guy 'in charge' of it who also happens to be a victim.

    Now, that said, Trump isn't a very sympathetic 'victim' to a lot of people but if they aren't willing to defend him in terms of secret surveillance, what chance to the rest of us really have?

    In fact, civil libertarians still get laughed at when we bring up these concerns even though most of the things we were the most worried about have already happened.

  • I can't even||

    John beat me to it. The surveillance can now be focused on presidential candidates, their families, and any of their associates. It can be used to destroy them whenever it helps a Democrat.

    We now now that there are unaccountable bureaucrats in the deep state who control the surveillance apparatus.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Snowden should return to the USA. Trump will probably pardon him to stick it to Obama.

    Besides, part of being a patriot is accepting the consequences of your actions to alert Americans to the treasonous behavior of government bureaucrats.

  • Citizen X||

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Yeah, but he said that on Twitter. You can't believe anything he says on Twitter. He's just trolling... someone.

  • Citizen X||

    It is true that he's probably changed his mind six or seven hundred times since that tweet, but would you stake your life on it?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    He can ask Trump.

    At some point Russia is going to get tired of Snowden being there. Better to come back to the USA on your terms than some future politician.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Citizen X thinks what Trump thinks (or will do) and what Trump says (or promises) are related.

  • Citizen X||

    No, i just think that Snowden would be an idiot to expect a pardon from Trump.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    If Roseanne, Ted Nugent, or Chachi pimps for Snowden, a pardon seems likely.

    If Stacey Dash is willing to rub that flabby belly while pitching for Snowden, it's a cinch.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    "Ken Shultz", is that you?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    His desire to troll lefties and especially Obama might be greater than his desire to have Snowden executed.

  • Rhywun||

    While Apple resisted, the FBI managed to get access with the assistance of a third party.

    I'm still calling BS on that. They wouldn't name the third party or how it was done. This tells me that the whole thing was a ruse - an attempt to get Apple to give up their security because "well if anyone can break into it what's the point". I think nobody broke into the phone.

  • Just Say'n||

    They didn't name the third party, because it was some subsidiary of Apple. But, it's adorable how we still need to pretend like that totally didn't happen when it most assuredly happened.

  • Rhywun||

    Nah. There was no third party. The FBI made the whole thing up after Apple told them to pound sand. iPhone security measures such as fingerprints and passwords are saved to the CPU in such a manner that even Apple doesn't have access to them. I suppose Apple could be lying about that but it seems unlikely given the damage it would do if they were caught.

  • BYODB||

    The '3rd party' was probably the company that issued the phone to the guy, since I'd wager their I.T. department had his password for a company issued device.

    No company I've worked for issues devices and then says 'do whatever the fuck you want with it', but I could be way off base and the phone they wanted access to was a private device. I honestly can't remember, since I assume the government had all of the guys data on an NSA server somewhere already.

  • Stephen Seligman||

    It has gotten worse. The government has gotten bigger, and more capable of spying on us regular folks. So, yeah its changed, and not for the better

  • Just Say'n||

    "The Trumpification of the Surveillance Fight"

    I agree, most civil libertarians have thoroughly discredited themselves during the Trump era. They could have stayed true to their principles, but instead chose to defend the CIA and FBI because of principals.

    It's cute, though, how the discredited have tried to make this an indictment on the people who think that there is something seriously wrong about bureaucrats trying to undo the results of a free and fair elections. At least we know now who not to trust anymore.

  • BYODB||

    No one gives a fuck, the Republic is already dead. It lives on as a zombie, but it's hardly recognizable.

  • GILMORE™||

    ""After Snowden""

    Until charges against him are dropped and congress takes action to stop surveillance of citizens.... there is no "After"

  • ||

    The root of the problem is government's moral blank check, based on the belief that govt. protects us. But that is totally irrational. So, why do the vast majority believe it?

    Beliefs are the result of thinking or adopting other people's beliefs, which takes very little thought if any. If the latter, then emotion replaces thought. This is common with the very young. They can be manipulated into belief without thought. It is a commonly accepted practice called teaching or passing down tradition or culture. Actually, it is indoctrination. And it is not good for humanity. But once victimized the victim passes on the practice unquestioningly. And this is why thinking is short-circuited, replaced by brain-washing by the previously brain-washed.

    I think it is based on ignorance of the indispensable act of thinking for oneself. This requires profound respect for each individual mind to work out problems by their own mental processes, without any corrupting influence such as threats, physical or emotional.

    Respect for individuality leads to helping the young learn without emphasis on content but instead the process of thinking. It means letting them choose the content. This is the opposite of how "educators" inflict their dogma on the captive young. By their actions, they "teach" submission to authority, i.e., the replacement of individual integrity with fear. To think for oneself is punished. To memorize, repeat, follow is rewarded.

  • Robert Crim||

    Why should anything have changed? Especially since Snowden missed so much!

    Haven't you ever seen Denzel Washington in Enemy of the State?

    Everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) in the movie is true except for the story, itself.

    Here's a cute trick law enforcement can pull when it doesn't have evidence sufficient to get a surveillance warrant:

    Under the Five Powers Agreement, it may be illegal for the FBI to monitor your conversations, but it is NOT illegal for the Mounties to do so -- no more than it's illegal for our guys to eavesdrop on the Russians. So, all the Bureau has to do is go to the NSA, have them go to the Canadians, have the Canadians do the spying, then have them report back to the Americans under Five Powers re what they heard.

    Fourth Amendment indeed!

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