There has been a lot of controversy over the subject of leaking government documents. Some think that people who leak those documents should be prosecuted and go to jail; others think that those leakers are doing the right thing. Many government officials and security experts believe that leaking government documents is unacceptable and those people who do it should face a long punishment in prison, because these acts might severely damage the national security of a specific state. In this work it is looked at one of the most recent acts of leaking government documents – Edward Snowden and the NSA files. What was the reason behind this act, how the public, media and the government of the United States and the UK responded, and what has changed ever since?
“Surveilling populations is one of the steps that oppressive regimes take, and the chilling effect of that is that you fundamentally violate basic freedoms.” – Laura Poitras
The reason Edward Snowden himself has said to many journalists that he leaked the NSA documents because he did not have another choice. In an interview with James Bamford from Wired, Snowden says that as he learned about the mass surveillance the NSA carried out, he brought this problem to his superiors’ attention. Unfortunately, this did not change anything, so Snowden decided that whistle-blowing and, therefore, public attention would be a way to, hopefully, change the situation. The copies of the documents Snowden took from the NSA files are now in the hands of several news organizations, including The Guardian, First Look Media – media organization set up by journalist Glenn Greenwald and US documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, The New York Times, and The Washington Post journalist Barton Gellman. These journalists and news organizations have revealed parts of the documents to bring public attention to the issue of mass-surveillance and information gathering of US citizens as well as people abroad. Moreover, from the documents it has been revealed that the US security agencies have worked together with foreign intelligence agencies, such as UKs GCHQ, to gain access to peoples’ personal data, phone logs and information, internet usage, etc. To do all this, many different programmes, such as Prism, Tempora, MonsterMind, etc. have been developed.
Public, media, and government response The wider response to Snowden’s leaking scandal went into different directions. According to the national survey conducted in the US in June 2013 by the Pew Research Centre and USA Today, there were a lot of people who said that Snowden did the right thing and his revelation of the NSA documents serves the public interest. On the other hand, there were also people who said that Snowden’s leaks harmed public interest and that he should be prosecuted. Yet, at the same time, more often than not, people also said that if they had known that the US government was collecting their data, they would have felt that their privacy had been violated. Moreover, it were younger people who were divided over whether Snowden should be prosecuted, whereas older people favour criminal prosecution. Media’s response over the leaks was somewhat different. After publishing the stories about the files and government officials’ response to the stories, quite a few journalists drifted away from the main point of the leaks, which was to inform the public about the illegal surveillance and information collection, and started questioning and accusing the journalists who had the files, about how they intend to keep the files safe. Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian journalist, for example, had to remind to many other news anchors, like in this video, that “there is only one group of people who have lost control of huge amounts of what they claim are important documents, and those people are called the GCHQ and the NSA.” Moreover, many mainstream media outlets, such as Reuters, CNN, The Times and BBC, claimed that publishing these documents has made it easier for terrorists to avoid surveillance and harder for the US and UK intelligence communities to track them. At the same time, as reported by The Intercept, there have been researches made by different independent analysts, who claim that Snowden revelations do not help terrorists. The report made by Flashpoint Global Partners, a private security firm, states that “well prior to Edward Snowden, online jihadists were already aware that law enforcement and intelligence agencies were attempting to monitor them.”
“The underlying public encryption methods employed by online jihadists do not appear to have significantly changed since the emergence of Edward Snowden.” – Report by Flashpoint Global Partners
Alan Rusbridger, that request led to destroying computers and hard drives in The Guardian offices in London. To the UK government, that seemed to be accomplishment enough at the time, and hopes that the Guardian won’t publish another story of the matter were high.
The US and UK governments reacted to these revelations like one would expect – widespread denial about any illegal surveillance and intelligence gathering was the main answer to the journalists and to the public. The UK government representatives asked The Guardian to hand over or destroy all the documents the newspaper had acquired from Snowden, and, according to
“Given the history of abuse by governments, it’s right to ask questions about surveillance. Particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives.” – President Obama
The US government response was quite different. As the revealing stories about illegal surveillance and information gathering gained more interest, government and intelligence community officials made statements to protect its actions. For example, former NSA Director Keith Alexander defended the NSA’s actions of surveillance in an interview with ABC News, saying it is vital for defending national interest and “to defend this nation,” while regarding Snowden as someone who had “betrayed the trust and confidence we had in him”. Besides Alexander there were others, such as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, who seemed to forget the NSA’s actions and considered Snowden’s actions as something that has profound effect on US national security and is “the greatest damage to our combined nations’ intelligence system that we have ever suffered”. Even President Obama defended the NSA’s surveillance programmes, saying that they are there to “protect our [US] security” and “to keep our people safe,” while criticizing Snowden for bringing up this issue in public. Obama went on saying that these programmes are secured against government abuse and that “if you are a US person, the NSA cannot listen to you telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your e-mails… they cannot and they have not, by law and by rule, unless… they go to a court and obtain a warrant,” leaving the rest of the world citizens conveniently aside. What has changed ever since?
“We live in a free society. You don’t target everyone because you’re interested in certain people.” – Laura Poitras
This whole leaking scandal has brought about some changes, but almost two years after the first stories about the documents were published, the change has not been as great as one would have expected. After setting up an independent panel – which still included many members of the intelligence community, the same community they had to review, including James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, who lied to the Congress about the surveillance – to review the NSA surveillance, and meeting with the biggest technology companies representatives, Obama announced a set of reforms that would scale back the NSA surveillance programmes – reforms that are not as far reaching as they could be. In other words, Obama finally admitted that the NSA surveillance and data collection was illegal and needed changes, but the only change is that now it is the telecom companies collecting the data and the NSA needs a court order to access this data. Yet at the same time, many technology companies have made more efforts in protecting users’ privacy – for example, Yahoo adds encryptions to all its services, and similar moves to add encryption and other security measures are being taken by Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. Despite all this, Snowden revelations have influenced foreign relations between the US and other countries – mostly with Brazil and Germany but also with other European and South-American countries. Despite all this, it could be said that the biggest change is that now there is a debate about the issue. People are more informed about the US (and UK) government actions and the illegal surveillance, they demand their rights for privacy to be protected. Moreover, people have more knowledge about the privacy issues and possible alternatives while using Iternet.
“I care more about the country than what happens to me. But we can’t allow the law to become a political weapon or agree to scare people away from standing up for their rights, no matter how good the deal. I’m not going to be part of that.” – Edward Snowden
But all in all, is anything changed fundamentally? The companies still collect data; the government still stores it and even collects it if people are believed to be related to terrorism or threat to national security. The whistle-blower – in this case Edward Snowden – is still being charged with felonies, even though he revealed the illegal and unconstitutional acts of the US that undermine privacy, at the same time, the state do not see almost any wrongdoing in its own actions. Lastly, it is important to ask ourselves, is this all worth it? Are we ready to give up our privacy to ensure security – and if so, then to what extent?
“Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserv neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin
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