In an op-ed published Thursday in The New York Times, whistleblower and former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden reflected on how circumstances have changed on the two-year anniversary of his first leaks. “Two years ago today, three journalists and I worked nervously in a Hong Kong hotel room, waiting to see how the world would react to the revelation that the National Security Agency had been making records of nearly every phone call in the United States. In the days that followed, those journalists and others published documents revealing that democratic governments had been monitoring the private activities of ordinary citizens who had done nothing wrong,” wrote Snowden in the opening of his retrospective.
At first, politicians rushed to criminally charge Snowden under the 1917 Espionage Act and called him a traitor to his country. “Privately, there were moments when I worried that we might have put our privileged lives at risk for nothing — that the public would react with indifference, or practiced cynicism, to the revelations,” said Snowden.
However, fast-forwarding to the present day, just days after Senator Rand Paul and other civil liberties advocates in the US Senate forced Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which authorized many of the programs about which Snowden leaked information, to expire and just weeks after a federal appeals court ruled that the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone metadata is illegal, Snowden’s cynicism has given way to optimism. “We are witnessing the emergence of a post-terror generation, one that rejects a worldview defined by a singular tragedy. For the first time since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we see the outline of a politics that turns away from reaction and fear in favor of resilience and reason. With each court victory, with every change in the law, we demonstrate facts are more convincing than fear. As a society, we rediscover that the value of a right is not in what it hides, but in what it protects,” Snowden said, celebrating recent achievements by US civil liberties activists.
Snowden’s commentary noted that privacy advocates still have work ahead of them given the fact that the newly-signed USA FREEDOM Act essentially compels corporations to sweep up Americans’ phone records on behalf of the government. “Some of the world’s most popular online services have been enlisted as partners in the NSA’s mass surveillance programs, and technology companies are being pressured by governments around the world to work against their customers rather than for them. Billions of cellphone location records are still being intercepted without regard for the guilt or innocence of those affected. We have learned that our government intentionally weakens the fundamental security of the Internet with ‘back doors’ that transform private lives into open books. Metadata revealing the personal associations and interests of ordinary Internet users is still being intercepted and monitored on a scale unprecedented in history: As you read this online, the United States government makes a note.”
He also warned citizens in Russia, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom that their governments too seek to take advantage of tragedies to generate political will for the dissolution of recognized civil rights. However, he pointed out some reasons to be optimistic about the flourishing of privacy protection worldwide. “Since 2013, institutions across Europe have ruled similar laws and operations illegal and imposed new restrictions on future activities. The United Nations declared mass surveillance an unambiguous violation of human rights. In Latin America, the efforts of citizens in Brazil led to the Marco Civil, an Internet Bill of Rights. Recognizing the critical role of informed citizens in correcting the excesses of government, the Council of Europe called for new laws to protect whistle-blowers,” said Snowden of the international movement towards the protection of privacy rights.
Snowden also recognized the work of “technologists” who have been toiling to prevent governments from hijacking their products in an effort to “ensure access to basic privacies beyond borders.”
“At the turning of the millennium, few imagined that citizens of developed democracies would soon be required to defend the concept of an open society against their own leaders… Yet the balance of power is beginning to shift,” said Snowden, recognizing that his decision to essentially destroy his cushy life as a well-paid NSA contractor living in Hawaii was not in vain.
National Journal notes that 2016 Democratic presidential candidate and ex-Senator and Governor from Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee fused support for Snowden into a speech announcing his campaign earlier this week. “Our sacred Constitution requires a warrant before unreasonable searches, which includes our phone records… Let’s enforce that and while we’re at it, allow Edward Snowden to come home,” said Chafee.