Edward Snowden Probably Deserves Credit for These 3 Privacy Victories
It’s been two years since Edward Snowden met up with journalists in a Hong Kong hotel room to reveal something that had been troubling him. The former National Security Agency contractor had decided he couldn’t stay quiet or complicit any longer: The agency was gathering vast quantities of information—without a warrant—about the lives of everyday Americans.
Now living in exile in Russia, Snowden has been called a traitor by former Vice President Dick Cheney, and he was criticized by presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton for fleeing to “two countries with which we have very difficult cyberrelationships, to put it mildly.”
Snowden knew that exile was just one price he might pay for coming forward, ending the life he had led up until two years ago today. His revelations would have sounded like a tinfoil-hat conspiracy coming from anyone without the direct access he had—and the proof he shared with Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. Snowden and others believe we still have a long way to go in restoring privacy and constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. But here are some changes that started that day in Hong Kong—whether he gets much credit for them or not.
Government Checks Itself, Seeks Balance
The judicial system has long been aggressive when it comes to seeking reforms of surveillance programs. Back in August 2013, a federal court opinion revealed that America’s spies had lied to get permission for the communications gathering Snowden exposed. Last month, a New York federal appeals court ruled that the NSA’s mass collection of telephone records was unlawful, a decision Snowden called “a radical sea change.”
Tech giants such as Google and Apple have vowed to protect the privacy of users and have publicly called on the government to stop demands to use them to monitor individuals. As Snowden wrote in a New York Times op-ed Friday: “Secret flaws in critical infrastructure that had been exploited by governments to facilitate mass surveillance have been detected and corrected.”
Knowledge Is Power
The knowledge Snowden shared with the world has raised alarm, with notable ally German Chancellor Angela Merkel learning that her phone conversations had been compromised for years. Security officials initially defended their surveillance work, saying it was necessary in a post-9/11 world. But public opinion has shifted since the leaks two years ago, with people around the world calling for less surveillance: In March, human rights advocacy group Amnesty International released a poll of 15,000 people from 13 countries that found the vast majority—71 percent—strongly opposed to American government monitoring of Internet use.
That’s not an opinion many would have considered—or even a question that would have seemed worth asking—without Snowden’s revelations.