In June 2013, the world was shaken by the unprecedented disclosures made by whistleblower Edward Snowden, revealing extensive surveillance programs operated by intelligence agencies like PRISM and XKeyscore. While some view the leaks as an act of treason, it is essential to recognize the profound positive impact they have had on Western societies. The Snowden leaks served as a wake-up call, igniting a crucial debate on the balance between security and privacy, fostering necessary reforms, and empowering individuals with knowledge.
The Snowden leaks, one of the few conspiracy theories that have proven true, have been a catalyst for privacy and transparency. But is this a lasting success?
Ten years on, we must take a look at how the publications on NSA surveillance by the whistleblower changed our societies, but also take a look at where we stand today and what challenges are ahead of us.
All in all, one must conclude that the Snowden leaks have been a real catalyst for our right to privacy, particularly online. The leaks sparked interest in privacy-preserving apps such as Tor, Signal and Tutanota. All of these services might not exist today without Edward Snowden.
The leaks contributed to a surge in the adoption of encryption and privacy tools by individuals and organizations - a trend that was already ongoing back then, but interest really took off after the revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden. People became more conscious of their online privacy and sought ways to protect their digital communications. It was like a wake-up call.
While today concern about state surveillance, particularly from Russia and China, is still a predominant, most people are more concerned about surveillance by Big Tech when choosing privacy-first apps like Tutanota, Threema, or Tor.
Cryptography expert Matthew Green writes on Twitter:
"If Snowden hadn’t appeared in 2013 I wonder how much deeper in the “mandatory scanning of encrypted messaging” applications mess we would be today. I feel like that may have bought us years."
"Ironically it also bought several years for content scanning systems to get potentially much smarter (and scarier) thanks to developments in AI/ML. I think the delay was helpful because it helps us to see how much more powerful these systems will soon be."
"I remain hopeful that some of the AI safety/ethics experts will talk more about how important the law enforcement/surveillance capabilities of these systems are and what these new content scanning laws could mean."
Green already hints at the "mess" we are in today: Chat control. Chat control is a draft law by the European Union that wants to make client-side scanning of chat and email messages mandatory throughout the EU to fight child abuse and terrorism. However, the backlash against EU client-side scanning is enormous.
We as an email service have analyzed what crimes are being investigated with telecommunication surveillance orders. The conclusion: It is not to protect the children. The stated reasons by the EU for automatic CSAM scanning are only being used to swing the public opinion in their direction.
Unfortunately, it's not just chat control. The Online Safety Bill in the UK as well as the Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act and EARN IT bill in the USA are two more alarming examples of how democratic governments try to push surveillance and weaken encryption.
Snowden himself sees the risks as well:
"It feels like in just ten years, EU bodies have transformed from "our best hope for a sincere guarantor of global human rights" into "authoritarian cabal strenuously advocating for the planetary, machine-enforced restriction of basic human liberty."
People on Reddit are also quite pessimistic about the future outlook:
"At the end of the day, the revelations had zero impact on the lives of ordinary people. Just like before when the surveillance was secret."
However, they also acknowledge that privacy-first tools would not exist had it not been for Edward Snowden and his NSA leaks:
"I think Threema and Signal would not exist."
All in all, however, the changes in legislation were meager: Snowden and his leaks forced US intelligence agencies to admit extensive spying on US citizens. Some reforms were enacted but the whistleblower still faces potentially 30 years in prison - that's why he has been living in Russian exile for ten years now.
Before he blew the whistle, Edward Snowden was living a comfortable life with a well-paid job in Hawaii.
The Guardian asks: "Was his act of self-sacrifice worth it – did he make a difference?" The answer - in the long run at least - is not too much.
“I wish things had changed more than they have,” says Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University in New York. “I would say that the Snowden disclosures made a huge difference to how informed public debate is about the government’s surveillance activities.”
Increased Awareness and Debate: Prior to the leaks, the activities of intelligence agencies operated largely in secrecy, evading public scrutiny and lacking adequate oversight. Snowden's revelations prompted governments to reevaluate their surveillance practices and implement reforms. The resulting legal changes and increased oversight mechanisms aimed to strike a balance between national security and the protection of civil liberties, particularly in the US and Europe. For the first time, the power of surveillance became obvious to everyone and people felt threatened by this. Thus, the leaks catalyzed important debates and measures to enhance accountability within intelligence agencies. However, changes did not go far enough, and today, governments are moving into the opposite direction again.
Safeguarding Democracy and Human Rights: In a democratic society, the right to privacy is fundamental. The Snowden leaks forced citizens and governments alike to reevaluate the erosion of civil liberties in the name of security. By shedding light on questionable practices, Snowden reminded us of the importance of protecting individual freedoms and the democratic principles upon which Western societies are built. The leaks became a catalyst for challenging the erosion of privacy rights and reinforcing the value of human rights in an increasingly connected world.
Technological Advancement and Encryption: Snowden's revelations shed light on the vulnerabilities of digital communication and the need for improved security measures. In response, the tech industry invested in developing stronger encryption protocols and privacy-enhancing technologies. This has resulted in increased protection for individuals, making it harder for governments and malicious actors to gain unauthorized access to personal data. The leaks spurred innovation, making privacy and security a priority in the design of new digital tools. Many companies like Facebook & Google tried to present themselves as the new defenders of privacy. However, people by now - and also thanks to the Snowden leaks - understand that only proper end-to-end encryption can protect their data and, thus, choose services like Signal and Tutanota.
International Relations: The Snowden leaks strained diplomatic relationships between the United States and its allies. Many countries, especially European nations, expressed outrage at the extent of surveillance activities targeting their citizens. This led to tensions and negotiations regarding intelligence sharing agreements and data privacy protections. These tensions in the tech sector are going on to this day, leading to huge fines for Facebook and other tech giants because of violations of the European GDPR
Whistleblower Protection: Snowden's bold act exposed the challenges faced by whistleblowers who seek to expose government misconduct. His case brought attention to the need for better protection for those who take risks to bring crucial information to the public's attention. The leaks have influenced ongoing discussions around whistleblower protection, encouraging legal reforms that recognize the vital role of whistleblowers in upholding accountability and transparency.
While the Snowden leaks were undoubtedly controversial, their impact on Western societies cannot be ignored. The disclosures initiated vital conversations about privacy, transparency, and government accountability. They led to tangible changes, including legal reforms, increased oversight, and technological advancements that prioritize individual privacy. Edward Snowden's actions forced us to question the status quo and strive for a society that values both security and civil liberties.
THe Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says:
"Now, ten years after those pivotal revelations, what has changed? Some things are undoubtedly better – under the intense scrutiny of public attention, some of the National Security Agency’s most egregiously illegal programs and authorities have shuttered or been forced to end. The Intelligence Community has started affirmatively releasing at least some important information, although EFF and others have still had to fight some long Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) battles. Outside of government, companies and organizations have worked to close many of the security holes that the NSA abused, most prominently by encrypting the web.
"But it’s not enough—not even close. There’s still much work to be done to rein in our overzealous national security state, break political gridlock, and end the extreme secrecy that insulates some of the government’s most invasive tactics."
But the EFF concludes that "in 2021 alone, the FBI conducted up to 3.4 million warrantless searches of Section 702 data to find Americans’ communications". This illegal mass surveillance must end, and the EFF is fighting. You can join them.
Taken together, the changes brought to our societies by the Snowden leaks have been very positive, however, not long lasting. Today it is even more important for us to fight for our right to privacy!
In June 2013, the world was shaken by the unprecedented disclosures made by whistleblower Edward Snowden, revealing extensive surveillance programs operated by intelligence agencies. On June 6, 2013, an article in the Guardian was the first publication in a series of many others based on leaked information by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which revealed a worldwide unrestricted spying program of the USA, done by the secret services NSA and FBI. This article revealed the fact that the NSA was collecting data on telephone conversations of millions of US residents.
After that, the Washington Post followed up by revealing the Prism eavesdropping program. According to the report, the NSA and the FBI directly tapped into central computers and thus the customer data of Internet companies such as Apple, AOL, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and Skype. They gained access to videos, photos, emails, documents and contact data, for example, and were thus able to create extensive profiles of users.
In a video statement published a few days later, whistleblower Edward Snowden described the spying capabilities of the USA as significantly greater than anyone could have imagined: "If I wanted to look into your emails or your wife's phone, all I'd have to do is pull up the intercepted data." Any authorized intelligence officer could get "emails, passwords, call data, credit card information" of wanted persons on a grand scale without judicial authorization.