The Snowden Year

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Yesterday marked one year since The Guardian published the first of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. The Electronic Frontier Foundation lists 65 things we have discovered about the NSA since last year. But, for Elizabeth Goitein, what’s striking is how little has changed in terms of the law and how the NSA does its business:

[B]ulk collection – the NSA program that has been most controversial among Americans and that has the weakest security justification – continues. Last month, the House was poised to approve a bill, the “USA Freedom Act,” which would have ended the practice. But in 11th-hour talks behind closed doors, intelligence officials prevailed on House leadership to introduce a loophole, allowing the government to choose the “specific selection terms” it would use to identify records for intake. It is now unclear, at best, how “bulky” the government’s collection might be under the bill. There has been even less progress toward ending so-called “back door searches” of actual communications content.

And the damage to America’s international reputation – especially among allies – endures:

Prior to these disclosures, the United States was considered a world leader in promoting Internet freedom. It made it a signature part of American foreign policy and spent millions of dollars supporting new tools to protect the digital privacy of human rights activists globally. But the last year has deeply undermined global trust in U.S. leadership in this area, not to mention its commitment to the rule of law and transparency in government. If this trust continues to erode, it will have huge ramifications for U.S. business and foreign-policy interests. Technology companies are already losing billions of dollars and overseas customers who want their data stored away from the snooping eyes of the U.S. government.

Timothy Lee looks into how Reset the Net, a DIY data privacy campaign supported by big tech companies and organizations like the EFF, is advising us to protect ourselves:

For your cell phone, Reset the Net recommends ChatSecureTextSecure, and RedPhone.

As the names suggest, these products enable users to communicate securely over instant messaging, text messaging, and voice calling. Reset the Net also encourages users to set a password on their phone so its contents can’t easily be accessed by criminals or the police.

For your Mac or PC, the bundle includes secure instant messaging software (Adium for Mac or Pidgin for PC) as well as Tor. Tor is software that helps preserve your anonymity by allowing you to browse your address without revealing where you’re browsing from. Users are also encouraged to activate full-disk encryption. Finally, Reset the Net has tips for improving password security. You should avoid re-using the same password on multiple sites. Instead, keep track of your passwords with a password manager or just write them down on paper.

Madeline Karr provides some critical perspective on the campaign:

It is perhaps questionable whether this campaign offers a real solution, despite the big names involved. There are more than 2 billion people online and an awful lot of them will have to install encryption and privacy tools for this campaign to have any meaningful impact on mass surveillance programmes such as Prism. It may well be that Reset the Net will be the very thing it doesn’t want to be – a public pressure movement rather than a practical solution.

It’s also interesting to see the campaign neglecting to address the role of the  in hoovering up our data in the first place. The relationship between internet giants like Google and the US intelligence community remains ambiguous so their advice about locking out spies might be a little hard to swallow. Prism couldn’t exist without the sea of  that these corporations collect and redistribute hourly as part of their commercial activity.

But how, pray, are these not also guides to potential terrorists to avoid the NSA dragnet? I remain of the view that Snowden’s leaks have largely justified themselves. But I still cannot get too exercized by the US government trying to stymie and prevent terror attacks using the West’s only real ace card: our technological superiority. It sure beats rendition, invasion, occupation and torture. It’s only if you believe that the Islamist threat is a fiction, as some in the civil liberties brigade do, that you can dismiss this argument. For me at least, it remains dispositive.

(Photo by Flickr user ubiquit23)