Snowden One Year On: Four Things We Know
One year ago today, we learned that an anonymous source had released thousands of classified files documenting the NSA’s broad ranging surveillance programs. The story first broke in The Guardian, followed by the Washington Post and an avalanche of media outlets. Four days later, on June 9, Edward Snowden came forth as the source of what has been described as the most significant leak in U.S. history since the Pentagon Papers. The spying detailed in the Snowden files outlined a surveillance apparatus that shocked legislators, technology companies, and the public. On the first anniversary, PEN looks at what we’ve learned over the course of one year of ongoing revelations, the state of surveillance reform moving through Congress, and what we can do to fight back.
PEN has been engaged in anti-surveillance efforts for years and on many fronts. As part of the Campaign for Reader Privacy, we fought the Patriot Act’s provisions that allow the FBI to search bookstore and library records. We challenged the constitutionality of the NSA’s spying in Amnesty v. Clapper, a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, and we filed amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs in several other lawsuits against the NSA. We’ve held public events including “Something to Hide: Writers and Artists Against the Surveillance State,” “Who’s Afraid of Free Speech?,” “They’re Watching Us: So What?,” and many others. And last November, we released the groundbreaking report, Chilling Effects that documents the impact surveillance is having on writers, based on an October 2013 survey of U.S. PEN Members. The survey’s findings demonstrated that 1 in 6 writers has avoided writing or speaking on a topic they thought would subject them to surveillance; and another 1 in 6 has seriously considered doing so. This summer, PEN will broaden the scope of the survey to include PEN Members around the world to find out how surveillance affects writers in other countries, and what this means for freedom of expression and creative freedom.
Writers play a critical role as investigators, dissenters, explorers, and advocates for change. To do this work, they depend on privacy to make connections, to communicate with one another, to experiment, and to create. PEN’s concern is that sweeping surveillance programs like those conducted by the NSA will cramp our communications, limit our associations, shrink our scope of thought, curiosity and creativity, and ultimately debase our democracy. That’s why we fight, and why we’ll continue to beat the drum for real surveillance reform and better privacy protections for Internet users.
We know the issue is complex and far-reaching. To help take stock of where we are and where we need to go, we put together four points you need to know about the surveillance debate, one year after Snowden:
1. We don’t have real surveillance reform, and prospects for getting it aren’t great: A few months ago, many surveillance reform advocates pinned their hopes on the USA FREEDOM Act, a bill introduced in the fall of 2013 by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner and Sen. Patrick Leahy. As introduced, the bill was a strong piece of legislation that would have addressed many (though not all) of the growing concerns with the NSA’s surveillance programs. A committee markup watered down the bill, followed by a closed-door negotiation with the Obama administration that watered it down even more. By the time the final draft of the USA FREEDOM Act was passed by the House of Representatives, it was so weak that many technology and civil liberties organizations withdrew their support of the bill. Now it’s the Senate’s turn, and while some senators have been steadfast in calling for stronger reform measures, there may be many more in the chamber who are equally steadfast in opposing those measures. It’s crucial that your senators hear your demands for strong reform.
2. What we know about these programs should scare you: Simply making a list of everything the NSA can do turns into a really long list. Many people are aware that the NSA can look at our “meta data”—phone and email records, chat and browsing history. Some people are also aware that the NSA can look at the content of most email and text messages that cross the U.S. border. But a full accounting of their activities turns up some items you may not expect. This list from Slate notes the NSA’s tracking of reservations at upmarket hotels, their use of fake SIM cards and USB thumb drives that are actually monitoring devices, and their monitoring of communications between online gamers. The NSA can also track your location using your mobile phone, and get into a computer even when it’s not connected to the Internet. And there’s plenty more where that came from.
3. We need to know more about who is targeted for surveillance: Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Barton Gellman, and many other reporters are still breaking stories about the NSA’s activities. We may only know a fraction of the information in the documents released by Snowden. One question that looms large: Who has been targeted by the NSA? Edward Snowden has stated that the NSA spies on human rights organizations. In the coming weeks, Glenn Greenwald is expected to release the names of individuals who have been targeted for surveillance. If the claims that human rights organizations and political activists have been targeted are true, this all starts to feel eerily similar to revelations of the COINTELPRO program run by the Hoover-era FBI, in which the FBI spied on left-wing political groups and leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in an effort to discredit them and spread intimidation and fear within their political movements.
4. If we want our privacy back, we need to take it back: Even if a respectable surveillance reform bill is passed by Congress, the NSA is likely to find other legal loopholes to justify their programs. The NSA claims it is legally authorized to conduct its surveillance under a number of authorities, including Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, Executive Order 12333, and other laws. Reform some of these laws, and they’ll find other arguments to provide legal cover for what they want to do: It’s like playing surveillance law whack-a-mole.
We can’t wait for the government to fix this. We all need to keep the pressure on Congress to deliver real reform, but we also need to protect ourselves. Take back your privacy with the help of campaigns like Reset the Net and Encrypt All the Things. Tell tech companies that you want stronger privacy protections for your email, web browsing, and other online activities. Learn about encryption and other ways to protect yourself online.