Surveillance still a concern 10 years after Snowden leaks

By Lia Zhu in San Francisco | China Daily | Updated: 2023-06-05 07:12
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Edward Snowden speaks from Russia during a Council of Europe meeting in Strasbourg, France, in March 2019. [Photo/Agencies]

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Revelations have deep impact on businesses, governments, tech industry

Ten years ago this month, Edward Snowden disclosed to the media United States government intelligence programs that used extensive internet and phone surveillance to collect data.

The former contractor with the US National Security Agency leaked thousands of highly classified documents, revealing the extent of Washington's mass surveillance efforts.

Snowden's disclosures rocked governments, global businesses and the technology world. They also sparked debate on government surveillance, privacy violations and data security.

In the past decade, the "Snowden effect" has had a profound impact on society and the technology industry, with more public attention paid to the US government's abuse of surveillance tools and encryption services.

In a recent report examining Snowden's legacy, the privacy advocacy organization Electronic Frontier Foundation said, "Snowden's revelations acted like a floodlight, allowing everyone to better see and understand what happens inside the black box of government surveillance of millions of innocent people in the US and around the world."

Some observers, including the EFF, are disappointed by how little progress has been made. The programs Snowden pointed out in 2013 are still in operation, and the US government continues to conduct surveillance on foreigners and US citizens under the same legal framework.

The EFF said, "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."

Analysts from the group recognized that "some things are undoubtedly better under the intense scrutiny of public attention". For instance, some of the NSA's most egregiously illegal programs and authorities have closed or been forced to end, and the intelligence community has started affirmatively releasing at least some important information.

Five years after the Snowden leaks, the NSA was compelled to delete millions of records in 2018 after it was revealed that some of the data had been collected from phone service providers without legal authority or authorization.

In 2020, Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act — a surveillance law with a rich history of government overreach and abuse — expired due to its sunset clause.

For years, the US government relied on Section 215 to conduct a dragnet surveillance program that collected billions of phone records documenting who a person called and for how long they called them. There was more than enough information for analysts to infer highly personal details about a person, including who they have relationships with and the private nature of those relationships, the EFF said.

In 2015, a federal appeals court held that the NSA's interpretation of Section 215 to conduct this surveillance dragnet was "unprecedented and unwarranted".

The EFF report said: "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."

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