MINNEAPOLIS — Three years after the public first learned about top secret documents which proved that the U.S. government routinely spies on millions of people, mass surveillance remains a part of everyday life.
On June 5, 2013, The Guardian published the first report on the NSA’s mass surveillance program based on thousands of classified agency files provided to journalists by Edward Snowden.
Three years ago, this story on mass surveillance was published. At the time, no one knew it was part of a series. https://t.co/hcHF2qGgzk
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) June 6, 2016
More revelations would follow at a rapid pace, including the identity of the mysterious whistleblower, who was revealed to have worked as a security analyst at the NSA under contract from Booz Allen Hamilton.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) June 6, 2016
Privacy and digital civil liberties experts believe Snowden’s actions led to increased awareness about the state of Internet privacy, as well as the need for solutions to the problem like increased use of encryption.
“The Snowden leaks have helped illuminate how the NSA was operating outside the law with near impunity, and this in turn drove an international conversation about the dangers of near-omniscient surveillance of our digital communications,” wrote Rainey Reitman, activism director at the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, on June 5.
Although that first report concerned the NSA’s mass surveillance of Verizon customers, it soon became apparent that the NSA was monitoring millions of people worldwide, including virtually every American citizen and even world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Quoting from “CitizenFour,” the award-winning documentary on Snowden, Reitman noted in 2014 that the NSA whistleblower was inspired by his memories of the free-flowing nature of the information on the Internet in its early days, before it was subject to government interference:
“I remember what the Internet was like before it was being watched, and there’s never been anything in the history of man that’s like it. I mean, you could have children from one part of the world having an equal discussion where you know they were sort of granted the same respect for their ideas and conversation, with experts in a field from another part of the world, on any topic, anywhere, anytime, all the time. And it was free and unrestrained.”
Two years later, in June 2015, the U.S. passed the USA Freedom Act, which placed limits on the NSA’s mass surveillance program. The law ended the bulk collection of data pertaining to people’s phone calls, and its scope was intended to cover other forms of bulk spying, such as gathering all the data from an entire region or spying on every customer of a service provider like Verizon.
Today, Snowden remains an advocate for online freedom. He lives in Russia on asylum, where he was forced to take refuge after the U.S. canceled his passport during his efforts to reach South American countries friendly to him and his cause.
Congress fought the internet, and the internet won.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) May 27, 2016
His voice is as necessary as ever, as new forms of surveillance continue to proliferate, often faster than activists can mobilize fight them. Local police are increasingly engaged in widespread surveillance on devices ranging from smartphones to closed circuit cameras. A bill published by the Senate this week would grant the FBI even more power to access a broad range of private data, including Internet users’ browser histories, email metadata, online purchase histories and more. And although the use of encryption to protect users’ data in tools like WhatsApp is more widespread, Internet corporations also engage in their own form of surveillance through online advertising.
Meanwhile, the NSA continues to spy on Americans, albeit purportedly with more limitations and greater oversight, Reitman observed, adding that the conversation Snowden started in 2013 “isn’t finished, and won’t be until the NSA surveillance wiretaps of the Internet are unplugged for good.”
“But today, we’re thankful to the many brave whistleblowers who have made this public discussion possible, the investigative journalists who have worked doggedly to unpack these complex issues, the many advocacy organizations, technologists, and lawyers working with us to challenge these practices, and the countless EFF members and supporters who fight along side us.”
Watch “‘State of Surveillance’ with Edward Snowden and Shane Smith” from Vice News: