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Reflections on a whistleblower: Two years after Snowden

A demonstrator with a mask depicting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others holding posters of Snowden take part in a November 2013 protest outside the German parliament building in Berlin
A demonstrator with a mask depicting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others holding posters of Snowden take part in a November 2013 protest outside the German parliament building in Berlin

AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

On 5 June 2013, journalist Glenn Greenwald published in the Guardian a single document confirming a key piece of the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program - the NSA's use of a secret court order to obtain cell phone records from millions of unsuspecting Verizon users.

That document confirmed what IFEX member the Electronic Frontier Foundation (and many others) had long claimed: that the NSA was conducting widespread, untargeted, domestic surveillance on millions of Americans. As the days passed, it became apparent that this document was only one of many crucial disclosures made by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Amid those initial disclosures, Snowden wrote, "I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in." We took Mr. Snowden's words as a challenge and as a solemn responsibility. The world we want to live in is free of invasive surveillance of our digital lives, and EFF has a plan to get there.
Richard Esguerra, EFF

The revelations fundamentally transformed EFF's long-running battle for an end to unchecked government surveillance. In the last two years, the organisation has been trying to take every opportunity to ensure that what shocked the world two years ago would serve as a basis for better standards, protections, and challenges to unchecked spying.

Some victories but governments continuing to maintain and expand surveillance

On 2 June 2015, the U.S. Senate passed the USA Freedom Act, marking the first time in over thirty years that both houses of Congress have approved a bill placing real restrictions and oversight on the NSA's surveillance powers.

The USA Freedom Act shows that the digital rights community "has leveled up", said EFF in a 2 June press release. "We've gone from just killing bad bills to passing bills that protect people's rights."

"[While it's no secret that we wanted more,] we're celebrating because, however small, this bill marks a day that some said could never happen - a day when the NSA saw its surveillance power reduced by Congress. And we're hoping that this could be a turning point in the fight to rein in the NSA," EFF adds.

Thanks to Snowden, we now know a lot more about what governments are doing and there has been huge public opposition to government mass surveillance. These are just 2 of the "7 ways the world has changed thanks to Edward Snowden", outlined by Amnesty International.

Nevertheless, in defiance of global condemnation, U.K. and U.S. spying programmes remain shrouded in secrecy, while several other governments are seeking new surveillance powers of their own. This is the warning in the Privacy International and Amnesty International special report, "Two years after Snowden: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Mass Surveillance".

This briefing warns that governments are looking to maintain and expand mass surveillance, despite the practice being condemned as a human rights violation by courts, parliaments and human rights bodies.

Luckily, Amnesty and PI have Snowden's evidence in their toolbox in the fight against government secrecy. They have used this to illustrate how countries are secretly sharing citizens' personal data.

And, to enable a better understanding of state surveillance programs in the Five Eyes countries (Canada, U.S.A., U.K., Australia and New Zealand), in March 2015 CJFE launched the Snowden Archive, a complete collection of all leaked documents from the whistleblower.

Protection for Snowden and other whistleblowers?

Snowden's disclosures set in motion a huge international debate on privacy and the impact of unchecked government surveillance. While many see this act as a key contribution to the public interest, he remains in precarious exile in Russia, facing charges in the U.S. under the antiquated Espionage Act.

"At present, US law does not allow a person charged under the Espionage Act to raise as a defense that the public benefit of exposure of official misconduct outweighs any harm caused by the revelation. And Congress has made no legislative progress to reverse this gap or provide alternative ways for whistleblowers to alert the public of matters of great importance without fear of prosecution."

Henry Peck, Human Rights Watch

Current whistleblower law in the U.S. does permit intelligence community employees to report an "urgent concern" through a set channel, but it does not protect those who disclose information from retaliation nor provide any defense in the event of criminal prosecution.

As for the recent media flurry in March 2015 suggesting that Snowden is 'ready to come home'? A recent article in The Intercept points to the "media deceit" behind these arguments. As Greenwald explains, ever since Snowden revealed himself to the public, he has repeatedly said the same exact thing when asked about his returning to the U.S.: I would love to come home, and would do so if I could get a fair trial, but right now, I can't.

"… When U.S. political and media figures say Snowden should "man up," come home and argue to a court that he did nothing wrong, they are deceiving the public, since they have made certain that whistleblowers charged with "espionage" are legally barred from even raising that defense.

Glenn Greenwald"

This sentiment is echoed by Daniel Ellsberg, an activist and former military analyst who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Ellsberg knows of what he speaks, having been the first American to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act for giving information to the American people. As he states,

"Without reform to the Espionage Act that lets a court hear a public interest defense – or a challenge to the appropriateness of government secrecy in each particular case – Snowden and future Snowdens can and will only be able to "make their case" from outside the United States."

Daniel Ellsberg

"Until it is acknowledged that whistleblowers who reveal government misconduct to the media deserve protection in certain circumstances, an important pressure valve that protects democracy will be relegated to those rare instances where a conscience-stricken individual is willing to sacrifice his or her future.

It shouldn't be that way."

Henry Peck, Human Rights Watch

But we will leave the last words to Snowden himself, quoted here in a 4 June 2015 op-ed in The New York Times.

"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.

Never have I been so grateful to have been so wrong.

Two years on, the difference is profound. In a single month, the N.S.A.’s invasive call-tracking program was declared unlawful by the courts and disowned by Congress. After a White House-appointed oversight board investigation found that this program had not stopped a single terrorist attack, even the president who once defended its propriety and criticized its disclosure has now ordered it terminated.

This is the power of an informed public."

Edward Snowden

What other IFEX members are saying
Additional resources
  • Edward Snowden: The World Says No to Surveillance

    Edward Snowden op-ed, The New York Times


    Glenn Greenwald, in The Intercept

  • Life after Snowden: Journalists' new moral responsibility

    Columbia Journalism Review

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