The Year of Snowden Was Just the Beginning

Edward Snowden started a worldwide conversation about surveillance in 2013. It’s still just beginning.

Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Almost a year ago to the day, I predicted here on Future Tense that 2013 would see important developments in government surveillance. But I could never have imagined just how important it would turn out to be, thanks largely to the actions of one solitary American: Edward Snowden.

In June, the 30-year-old former National Security Agency contractor became a household name almost overnight when he came forward as the source behind a series of extraordinary leaks about vast government spy programs. Snowden’s disclosures—the largest breach of top-secret information in history—cracked open the clandestine activities of the U.S. government and its allies to an unprecedented level of public scrutiny, triggering long-overdue international debate about the expanding scope of modern electronic surveillance methods.

The timing was impeccable. Just a day prior the first explosive Snowden scoop about the NSA’s  collection of millions of Verizon customers’ phone calls, a groundbreaking report by the United Nations’ free speech envoy had served up a prescient warning about governments’ increasing ability to “track and record Internet and telephone communications on a national scale.” New technologies, the report cautioned, were facilitating “invasive and arbitrary monitoring of individuals, who may not be able to even know they have been subjected to such surveillance, let alone challenge it.”

The U.N. report was based on fragments of largely circumstantial evidence about secretive government surveillance operations. Indeed, up until June there had already been a large amount of public reporting about the burgeoning scope of mass surveillance technologies. But there were no documents to confirm the crucial details, so the programs could still be denied and dismissed by government officials. By providing a large trove of first-hand documents, Snowden changed the game completely. Anyone positing the existence of the dragnet spying programs—or trying to challenge them in court—could no longer be accused of speculating hypothetically or be dismissed as a paranoid lunatic.

The first story based on Snowden’s leaks—the Verizon scoop—ripped the veil of secrecy off of a program that, it later emerged, has involved the NSA collecting the phone records of virtually all Americans for at least the last seven years. This program, first revealed by the Guardian, has continued to have the most resonance in the United States, and was recently ruled by a federal judge to be likely unconstitutional. Internationally, the public outrage has focused on the mass surveillance of Internet communications conducted by the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ as part of controversial programs like Prism, XKeyscore, Tempora, and Muscular—which jointly sweep up hundreds of millions of online communications daily. These programs sparked a lengthy investigation by the European parliament and prompted the world’s largest Internet companies to demand that President Obama take the lead on worldwide reforms of surveillance policies.(A panel set up by the White House to review the surveillance has separately proposed a series of reforms that would, if fully adopted, significantly rein in the NSA’s surveillance programs.)

There have also been important disclosures about the aggressive efforts of NSA and GCHQ to circumvent, deliberately weaken, and crack the encryption that keeps the Internet secure. These tactics have been attacked by cryptographers, who have accused the spy agencies of “acting against the interests of the public.” In addition, the leaks have shown how spy agencies are hacking into the computers of friendly governments and covertly infiltrating civilian telecommunications infrastructure in allied nations. They have shed light on how  NSA surveillance operations are entwined with the clandestine CIA drone program and exposed how the NSA tracks the locations of billions of cellphones. Not to mention the major revelations about how British and American spooks have spied on the communications of friendly foreign government officials—with the NSA’s eavesdropping on leaders in Brazil and Germany triggering a serious diplomatic spat.

It is hard at this point to fully quantify what the long-term legacy of Snowden’s incredible leaks will be. The former Hawaii-based NSA contractor remains exiled in Russia, fearing government persecution if he returns to the United States. Yet his actions have triggered what appears to be a partial but vital culture shift within the Obama administration on the issue of secrecy, leading to the declassification of previously top-secret court documents revealing how the NSA has violated the law on repeated occasions and misled the judges that are supposed to oversee its work. Snowden’s disclosures have had—and continue to have—a crucial part to play in informing and fueling the ongoing international debate about accountability and oversight of covert government conduct in democratic societies. On Wednesday, for instance, the United Nations unanimously voted in favor of curbing excessive electronic surveillance. And even the U.S. government’s own spy chief James Clapper—who has been exposed by the leaks to allegations of lying to Congress—has been forced to concede that the debate prompted by Snowden “probably needed to happen.”

But the backlash is in many ways just starting to gather momentum. Six months on from the first Snowden scoop, only now are we beginning to see the first substantive signs of emerging legal and policy shifts. Moreover, despite the crude attempts of some government officials to suppress the reporting on the secret files, important new stories are going to continue flowing. And I say that with a high degree of certainty because, in recent weeks, I have had a chance to review the cache of leaked documents while working on investigations with the former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, whom Snowden entrusted with the material earlier this year.

So expect more revelations—and with them more court rulings, committee hearings, controversies, and reforms. 2013 has certainly been the Year of Snowden, but you can bet that the whistle-blower is going to own a significant chunk of 2014, too.