The lessons learned from the Snowden revelations

The New York Times published an opinion piece by Edward Snowden on yesterday’s second anniversary of his revelations, where he justifiably expressed satisfaction at some of the changes his actions have wrought.

Privately, there were moments when I worried that we might have put our privileged lives at risk for nothing — that the public would react with indifference, or practiced cynicism, to the revelations.

Never have I been so grateful to have been so wrong.

Two years on, the difference is profound. In a single month, the N.S.A.’s invasive call-tracking program was declared unlawful by the courts and disowned by Congress. After a White House-appointed oversight board investigation found that this program had not stopped a single terrorist attack, even the president who once defended its propriety and criticized its disclosure has now ordered it terminated.

This is the power of an informed public.

Ending the mass surveillance of private phone calls under the Patriot Act is a historic victory for the rights of every citizen, but it is only the latest product of a change in global awareness. Since 2013, institutions across Europe have ruled similar laws and operations illegal and imposed new restrictions on future activities. The United Nations declared mass surveillance an unambiguous violation of human rights. In Latin America, the efforts of citizens in Brazil led to the Marco Civil, an Internet Bill of Rights. Recognizing the critical role of informed citizens in correcting the excesses of government, the Council of Europe called for new laws to protect whistle-blowers.

Beyond the frontiers of law, progress has come even more quickly. Technologists have worked tirelessly to re-engineer the security of the devices that surround us, along with the language of the Internet itself. Secret flaws in critical infrastructure that had been exploited by governments to facilitate mass surveillance have been detected and corrected. Basic technical safeguards such as encryption — once considered esoteric and unnecessary — are now enabled by default in the products of pioneering companies like Apple, ensuring that even if your phone is stolen, your private life remains private. Such structural technological changes can ensure access to basic privacies beyond borders, insulating ordinary citizens from the arbitrary passage of anti-privacy laws, such as those now descending upon Russia.

As could have been easily predicted, supporters of the national security state were enraged that the establishment newspaper had given space to a person they consider a traitor, even though some of the critics like Dana Perino, president Bush’s press secretary, were accomplices in, and among the worst apologists for, war crimes and torture.

Back in June 12, 2013, just one week after Edward Snowden’s revelations broke into the world’s consciousness and just three days after he revealed his identity, I wrote a long post listing some of the people on the supposedly liberal end of the political spectrum who condemned his actions and even joined with those who characterized his personality negatively, including Bill Maher, Kevin Drum, Josh Marshall, and Al Franken. Of course Andrew Sullivan is also on the list because he is a rank opportunist, who has mastered the craft of adopting positions that seem contrarian on the surface but are always in the service of power and his own career advancement.

Their initial reactions provides an interesting window into how people feel about the authoritarian state because the reactions of these people was to immediately side with the state, especially when it is headed by a president they liked, against someone who challenged the sweeping powers that the members of those states have taken upon themselves. Many of those voices have become muted over time as the value of Snowden’s revelations about government abuse have become more apparent, though I have not been following too closely to see if they have actually retracted their views and confessed to having erred in their initial judgments. In November 2014, Marshall tried to suggest that his initial reaction had been misconstrued by critics, though I think that is disingenuous, as this exchange with Cleveland blogger Tim Russo suggests.

Kevin Drum has taken a different tack and suggested that back in 2006, long before Snowden, another reporter Leslie Cauley had exposed some of the same information about AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth providing data to the government and that she should get a lot of the credit. Cauley undoubtedly should get some credit but her story illustrates precisely what makes Snowden’s actions so important. Cauley depended upon anonymous sources for her story and the government and phone companies could bat it down by making non-denial denials, invoking national security, and saying they could not comment on classified matters. That is why such stories die on the vine, because the government can stall and deny them.

But Snowden revealed actual official internal documents about what the government was doing and these could not be denied. That is why Snowden’s actions had such impact and are so important. When one looks back at those actions that resulted in significant consequences (Snowden, Chelsea Manning’s revelations to WikiLeaks, Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers, the release of secret FBI files in 1971) we see a pattern, that it is the existence of written documentation that makes a major difference.

Some of the liberal critics of Snowden are great admirers of Ellsberg. I wonder though if they had been around when he first revealed the documents, or when the Media, PA burglars first released the FBI files, whether they would have rallied round the government then the way they did when Snowden did something similar.

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