The first reports on Edward Snowden’s leaks were published one year ago on 6 June 2013. Four days later, the whistleblower revealed himself as a former NSA contractor, just 29 years old at the time.
He swiftly fled from Hong Kong to seek asylum in Russia, where he spent 39 days in limbo at the Moscow airport. He’d applied for asylum in 21 countries during this time, and Russia said yes first. Snowden has been living in exile ever since.
A year later, Edward Snowden is an international celebrity, and the United States is internationally infamous for its profoundly invasive and technologically advanced surveillance practices. The American public is more cynical about how the government treats privacy issues, and the president is a little bit more outspoken in talking about how the intelligence community works. But only a little.
All those changes are pretty subjective though. When it comes down to the specific, measurable impact of the Snowden leaks on the country and the world, you have to wade into the weeds a little bit, and separate out the difference between more insight and actual change. As it turns out, the world today looks a lot the world before Snowden. Just angrier and more confused.
Public awareness about privacy issues is better
Let’s start with the good news. The American people are certainly more aware of their right to privacy, and more specifically how that right is being violated by their own government in the post-Snowden era. (The NSA even hired a privacy and civil liberties officer for the first time!) The myriad headlines explaining how the NSA is listening to your phone calls and siphoning off data from major tech companies left an impression. Few would argue otherwise.
It’s not clear, though, that we plan to do anything about it, either because we feel powerless or apathetic, or more likely both. More people realise that privacy is not a given, especially when it comes to communication networks. But has it really changed behaviour? Trust in technology companies like Google which were complicit in NSA spying operations has probably dwindled a bit, but that doesn’t mean Americans have stopped using Google. It does mean that more people know about more secure alternatives like DuckDuckGo, though.
America could be less safe
One of the government’s biggest gripes with Snowden and his leaks is the extent to which it jeopardized national security. Snowden obviously disagrees. It’s hard to gauge something like the safety of a country — it’s not like there’s an objective way to measure it — but obviously magicians can’t do their tricks as effectively once the audience knows how they work.
Snowden’s leak exposed a lot of classified information about secret programs that, although incredibly invasive and pretty immoral, were designed to protect America. Having them in the open makes that job harder. A British counter terrorism official went on the record a few weeks ago and said very plainly that the Snowden leaks changed how terrorist groups operate. “Our adversaries, the terrorists out there, now have full sight of the sorts of tools and range of techniques that are being used by government,” said Stephen Phipson. “I can tell you data shows a substantial reduction in the use of those methods of communication as a result of the Snowden leaks.”
The counter argument, of course, would be that Americans in this case needed protection from their own government’s invasive practices. It’s a trade off that mostly takes place in the shadows, impossible to quantify, but central to the Snowden fallout.
Foreign relations aren’t as good as they used to be
The Snowden leaks revealed a lot of very, very shady behaviour on the part of the US government, much of which put foreign nationals in the surveillance crosshairs. Heck, the NSA was even spying on foreign heads of state, and not even Barack Obama knew about it.
So, while other countries were surely upset about these revelations, the foreign heads of state were straight up pissed. Just a couple of months after the initial leaks, Brazil announced plans to cut itself off from the American internet, as the country’s president very publicly condemned NSA spying very publicly condemned NSA spying. Brazil even started cancelling billions of dollars worth of contracts with American companies.
One major US ally that was caught in the middle was Germany. Months after allegations that the NSA tapped chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone, Germany launched an official investigation into the claims. This, along with the fact that hundreds of millions of Europeans were being spied on, jeopardised plans for a trans-Atlantic trade agreement and caused many European companies to explore ways to skirt around the American internet. It also caused American tech companies to lose a lot of customers.
Obama is slightly better at protecting Americans’ privacy
So: Americans gained some awareness. National security maybe suffered. Foreign relations certainly did. But did the Snowden leaks affect any real policy changes? Does the intelligence community invade our privacy any less? The answer to both questions is: yes, but barely.
In January, Obama announced a set of reforms designed to scale back the NSA surveillance programs, a nice-try initiative that disappointed many. The reforms were not completely without teeth. Obama also ordered an end to program that allows mass surveillance of telephony metadata, although he really just handed off that task to third parties like telecom companies. The intelligence community now needs a court order to access this information.
Obama tried to make the effort seem sincere. He called for an end to spying on foreign leaders “unless there is a compelling national security purpose.” He vaguely called for reforms that would increase transparency in the intelligence community. He endorsed the idea of ending permanent gag orders on National Security Letters, and even ordered “a comprehensive review of big data and privacy” to be led by John Podesta. Did he demand the NSA stop spying so Americans can stop feeling like they live in a George Orwell novel? Not even close. In fact, he defended the NSA’s spying habits quite a bit.
Tech companies are much better at protecting users’ privacy
This is the exciting part. In the past year, as many realised how the NSA was breaking into their databases to spy on their uses, whole host of tech companies have boosted their encryption capabilities. Heck, the very idea of encrypting basic data like the content of emails was almost never talked about before Snowden, and now there’s a whole coordinated campaign to make it encryption the new standard. Even Gmail, a free email service, now offers end-to-end encryption. That’s pretty cool!
The very real, tangible benefit of a more secure internet isn’t just about avoiding the NSA’s prying eyes. Better encryption means better cybersecurity and more protection against potentially destructive hackers. We know that the Chinese army is assaulting stateside servers on a regular basis. It’s such a problem that some of their officers are now on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for hacking-related offenses.
In a sense, by exposing the NSA’s secrets, Snowden actually compelled Americans to take cybersecurity more seriously. Obama himself has said time and time again that cybersecurity is of paramount importance to national security on the whole. It doesn’t take much of a logical leap to see how Snowden’s leaks will make America a safer place — or at least America’s internet.
But really things just stayed the same?
Improvements in encryption and awareness about cybersecurity aside, not much has really changed in terms of the US government’s surveillance practices in the year since the Snowden leaks exposed the dirty underbelly. Obama’s reforms will impact several layers of the intelligence community’s bureaucracy, sure. But many Americans and most foreigners should expect to get spied on. However, now that they know about it, they can do something about it.
Speaking of those reforms, the president’s glaring oversight on certain issues deserves a mention. Surveillance of internet communication under 702 of the FISA Amendments Act is largely unchanged, as is surveillance of overseas communications under Executive Order 12333. Foreigners still have no protection under surveillance laws, and Obama still hasn’t mentioned how he’s going to stop the NSA from undermining cyber security, which it’s been doing for years. Oh and that whole bit about improving transparency? That was bullshit. At least, Mark Zuckerberg thinks so.
But none of this should be a surprise. For those who’ve covered the NSA for years, it’s never been a mystery that the agency’s practices are terribly invasive. We knew almost ten years ago that the NSA could tap your phone even when it was powered off. So, why should we be surprised when Edward Snowden tells us that they still can?
What’s important and worth emphasising on this, the one-year anniversary of the Snowden leaks, is the simple fact that privacy takes work. Whether you like it or not, the government is spying on you. They have been spying on your for years, but now, thanks to Snowden, we have boatloads of proof. And while it will surely take years to see true reforms in the U.S. intelligence community, there are steps that you can take right now to improve your privacy. You can also thank Snowden for motivating tech companies to take privacy and security even more seriously. Did I mention that Gmail now offers end-to-end encryption?
So do it. Encrypt your email. Use DuckDuckGo instead of Google. Give Tor a try. There’s a whole checklist of things you can do to improve you cybersecurity and fend off unwanted snooping. Even if the NSA’s spying tools can crack your attempts at encryption — and they almost surely can — the only way we’re going to usher in a new era of privacy is by actively working towards it. So if you’re not happy with the amount progress we’ve made since the Snowden leaks, do something about it.