Edward Snowden and the NSA Disclosures

Was it all a Waste?

Disclosures from the vast trove of NSA documents obtained by Edward Snowden were first published in The Guardian exactly 560 days ago, and it’s worth asking ourselves whether we have gained anything from the revelations since then. The answer to that question increasingly seems clear: no.

I agreed with the publication of those documents and was appalled by the breadth and depth of America’s surveillance state apparatus. I agree with the principle that those who would trade security for freedom deserve neither. (For a reminder on just how wide-reaching the NSA’s capabilities are, this timeline of Snowden-related disclosures from Al-Jazeeraillustrates the extent of the Agency’s work).

When Snowden’s identity was first revealed in this video with Glenn Greenwald, he clearly stated that “his biggest fear” regarding his decision to reveal these documents to the world was “that nothing will change.” He goes on to say that this fear will be realized when the American public “won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things.”

And so here we are a year-and-a-half after the NSA surveillance disclosures began: what’s changed? The short answer: nothing. Take a look at the massive Wikipedia page for the Global Surveillance Disclosures (2013-Present), and you’ll see that if you search for the word “reform” it only comes up in the footnotes. That same Wikipedia page also has a link for “Proposed Changes” in the wake of Snowden’s disclosures—these include the absurdly-named USA Freedom Act and the FISA Improvements Act, among others—and you’ll quickly realize that all of these proposed changes are dead in the water and have gone nowhere.

Not only did these proposed reforms not go anywhere, they weren’t even real reforms to begin with. Even Marcy Wheeler, who has been a major critic of the NSA surveillance state and is affiliated with The Intercept, wrote on her blog that she did not support the USA Freedom Act. She outlined numerous reasons for her disdain regarding the watered-down piece of legislation, but ultimately her case rested on a point she made at the end of her entry: the Act’s “supporters are vastly overestimating its impact.” To recap: the USA Freedom Act would have only tinkered with NSA surveillance—not curbed it in any meaningful, significant way—and yet not even that pseudo-reform could become law. Not only are we not getting real change vis-à-vis the NSA, we’re not even getting fake change.

We should all be crestfallen and pessimistic about our freedoms online in the wake of Snowden’s disclosures. Well over 500 days later, we haven’t gotten anywhere in terms of reining in an out-of-control surveillance state, and there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that real reform is anywhere on the horizon. Edward Snowden was spot-on to say that his “biggest fear” would be that nothing would change once the world knew about the extent to which the United States government sequesters, sifts, and sorts through our communications online. Unfortunately for all of us, however, it seems Snowden’s biggest fear is coming true after all.

Winston Alpha is a a young American who has been independently writing on many social justice issues. He can be reached at: winstondiary@gmail.com. Read other articles by Winston, or visit Winston's website.