What can we learn from the Edward Snowden saga?

For many weeks now, the Edward Snowden saga has been rumbling on, with it likely to continue for many more weeks. Last week, it looked like another part of the saga was over, with Russian reports suggesting that he had been handed documents allowing him to enter the country officially. However, his lawyer later claimed that to be false, with his asylum application not yet processed and no documents handed over. It’s unclear whether the news was just miscommunication or a last minute political intervention on behalf of the Americans. Either way, even though the insanity surrounding the case has died down since his claims were first released, it will still likely affect every one of us, with people’s opinions largely divided.

Back at the beginning of June, the Guardian began posting information that they had gained from Snowden, exposing a supposedly unknown  surveillance program operated by the federal government. These first allegations suggested that the US government was using court orders to force US phone networks, such as Verizon, to hand over call records on their customers. Following that, Snowden divulged the existence, scope and functions of several other classified US surveillance programs. These included PRISM; which suggested that the US government had “direct access” to the servers of many US internet companies, able to track and analyse the actions of users; as well as Tempora; a supposed British operation run by GCHQ to collect data from the fibre-optic cables which carry most of the world’s internet traffic. This allows GCHQ to track almost all communications, with data kept  for a few days. As expected, these allegations started a worldwide debate on privacy and the actions of the intelligence agencies.

Much of this debate stems from the fact that a lot of these leaks show that people’s privacy is being limited – not just in the USA, but worldwide. Crucially; it’s not just supposed terrorists, but data is collected on everyone, with leaks suggesting that a “2 degree” policy is used, with agencies able to access information two degrees away from those that are on watch lists. With Facebook posts, internet browsing history and even emails tracked under the surveillance programs, many feel that the world is turning into “a federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world.” You could say that this is akin to Nazi or Stasi tracking of their own citizens, in order to repress the country. In comparison, many dislike the new Facebook graph search, which turns “Males, in London who like Lasagne, Ben & Jerry’s and The Office” into a page of results. You could say that this surveillance programs are just a bigger version of that, except that nobody can opt out, and the ability for the authorities to turn metadata into a picture of our precise online actions. With this in mind, it’s easy to see that releases have got many riled, including Tim Berners-Lee – the inventor of the world wide web – who claimed that governments are “trying to get total control” of the internet.

However, a little analysis shows that much of the initial reporting turned out to be wrong  —  so much, in fact, that it is incredibly bad reporting from some of the supposed leading newspapers of the world. A lot of inconsistencies, ranging from gaps in Snowden’s story; including details of his career or the access that Snowden claimed to have; to other unverified claims emerged. It’s likely that a lot of this happened because the newspapers knew that other papers were given similar information from Snowden, and in the rush to be first, didn’t have time to check the reporting. There was also the exclusive front-page report about “secret European deals to hand over private data to America” that was pulled by The Guardian at the last minute. Their source turned out to be a conspiracy theory crackpot – who also believes that Obama is gay – creating huge embarrassment for the paper. The link is certainly worth reading, as it starts to pick apart the argument and raise questions about Snowden’s motives, possibly changing the whole debate.

Perhaps one of the best ways to analyse the debate is to look at the reasons for why governments have potentially started to carry out these operations. A great example are the bombings that recently took place in Boston and the brutal attack on a British solider in Woolwich, London. In both cases, the terrorists were known to the authorities, leading many to believe that the government should have been tracking them, thus that they would have been able to stop the attacks. Despite this, tracking these people through traditional means would take a lot of resources – and when target are classified as low-risk, you have to stop somewhere – showing that in many cases although people don’t like PRISM or  Tempora, they still expect powerful law enforcement.

Therefore, the authorities were pushed to the internet, the home of a whole wealth of information on everything ranging from people searching for bomb recipes to groups planning an attack. They believe that using this information would help them to stop attacks, and keep us all safe. In fact, they turned out to be right, with the aforementioned surveillance programs helping the intelligence agencies to stop over 500 attacks worldwide, including an attack on the NYSE in New York and a “US-style terror attack” planned during the Olympics in London last year.

Personally, although I doubt anybody could have predicted everything that has been divulged by Snowden, I fail to understand how many didn’t expect at least some of it. Over the last few years, both the NSA and GCHQ have been spending heavily on new headquarters and expanding their authority. Taking this into consideration and combined with the growing expectation that we should all be kept safe, people should have expected more.  It’s easy to see how growing these programs could go even further, catching the common criminal trying to sell his stolen iPads on Facebook or even catch the drug gangs currently filling our streets with products ranging from legal highs to cocaine. Whatever it is, these programs – when used correctly – have massive potential to help make our world safer.

Away from this, there is another side of the story that is commonly ignored – Edward Snowden himself. In hiding away from the US authorities in Hong Kong, part of communist China, and Russia, a country which has been branded a Mafia state – Snowden has potentially given non-friendly states vital information, even if he didn’t mean it. The Chinese authorities would have taken copies of his data when he wasn’t watching, and having been in Moscow since June 23, the Russians have had plenty of time to do the same thing. Now we know that all countries tend to track each other, with Russia testing British air defences in training or slipping a Nuclear submarine into the Gulf of Mexico – but now the US and UK’s capabilities are harmed because vital information has been divulged. This could have far-reaching implications for many years to come, and has the potential to be a lot more serious than the public surveillance programs.

While the whole Edward Snowden saga is far from over, we can already learn a lot from the fallout even if the long term implications aren’t clear. The public has learned a lot about government surveillance programs that claim to track almost all online actions, even if a lot of the initial reporting has turned out to be false. Short term, it will certainly be interesting to see if they expand, aiming to meet the public thirst for the tracking of criminal and terrorist activity. In the long term though, I expect that Snowden will be certainly remembered, but more for his intelligent leaking to foreign states as much as for the leaking of the NSA and GCHQ initiatives.


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2 responses to “What can we learn from the Edward Snowden saga?”

  1. Rob Ridley says:

    Newspapers are not going to let the facts get in the way of a good story. Security agencies are going to gather intelligence inwhatever way they can and the internet is just another means by which they can achieve this. Individuals like Snowden have emerged over the years and have given the media in general great opportunities to generate attention grabbing headlines.This is just another risk security agencies face and is acceptable in the fight against terrorism and crime.

    I have no fear of of properly sanctioned investigation that keeps democracy safe. A luxury as I live in the UK and not in countries where people live in fear of the state. In my view Snowden would probably be dead by now if he was a citizen of Russia. Security agencies in democratic countries are not perfect but when the alternatives are considered I know where I prefer to live. The keywords are accountability and openness especially if a security agency gets things wrong.

  2. […] trust them and I don’t think you can trust The Guardian completely either. Previously, a lot of Snowden reporting has turned out to be wrong and it seems there is a lot of information that has been left out of this story as well. Despite […]