Remember the Edward Snowden revelations back in 2013, when he disclosed the mass surveillance of Americans’ telephone records?
And he was charged with espionage and theft of government property?
Well, a US court just ruled the surveillance program was indeed illegal.
A historic ruling
In 2013, Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor, made the headlines when he disclosed to the public top-secret government documents that demonstrated NSA’s close cooperation with US federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Over the course of months, Snowden also made public the agency’s previously undisclosed financial payments to numerous commercial partners and telecommunications companies, in exchange for access to user data. And he exposed international partners such as Britain, France, and Germany, and the NSA’s secret treaties with foreign governments that were established in order to share intercepted data of each other’s citizens.
Seven years later, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit announced the program was unlawful. The warrantless telephone dragnet that secretly collected millions of Americans’ telephone records violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The appeals court also ruled that the US intelligence leaders who publicly defended it were not honest about its intentions and scope.
Seven years ago, as the news declared I was being charged as a criminal for speaking the truth, I never imagined that I would live to see our courts condemn the NSA's activities as unlawful and in the same ruling credit me for exposing them.— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) September 2, 2020
And yet that day has arrived. https://t.co/FRdG2zUA4U
Initially, top intelligence officials insisted that the NSA never knowingly collected information on Americans at all. But when Snowden blew the whistle, officials fell back on the argument and claimed that the spying was crucial in fighting domestic extremism.
They hinged on the case of four San Diego residents, who were accused of providing aid to religious fanatics in Somalia. They were convicted in 2013 due to the NSA’s telephone record spying.
However, the court ruled this claim is “inconsistent with the contents of the classified record.”
A potential pardoning
In the aftermath of his revelations, Snowden fled to Russia to escape US espionage charges.
As you can imagine, this was a divisive decision. Some considered Snowden a traitor. Others felt he did the public a great service. Privacy rights activists said he should be pardoned, and some prominent political figures agreed.
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida is the latest Republican congressman to recommend President Trump pardon Snowden. This comes a few weeks after US President Donald Trump said he is looking to grant a pardon to Snowden, even though in the past he wanted him executed.
The last time we heard a White House considering a pardon was 2016, when the very same Attorney General who once charged me conceded that, on balance, my work in exposing the NSA's unconstitutional system of mass surveillance had been "a public service." https://t.co/fAseViVwAx— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) August 14, 2020
Not everyone is on board with this. Some critics claim that pardoning Snowden would benefit Russia and set a precedent for future whistleblowers.
And given Snowden’s disclosure of previously unknown details of a global surveillance apparatus run by the United States’ NSA in close cooperation with three of its four Five Eyes partners, there’s also a fear of diplomatic incidents.
An ongoing battle
While this ruling is a victory for privacy rights, the problem of government overreach is far from over.
Let’s not forget that, a few months ago, the US government was ready to reauthorize the US Freedom Act. The EARN IT and LAED Acts were also close to interfering with privacy and freedom of speech in the digital world. On top of everything, the coronavirus pandemic reactivated surveillance fears with the introduction of contact-tracing apps.
So far, it’s not yet clear if this ruling will impact programs similar to that of the NSA.
Do you think surveillance programs will continue? Can the extent to which they intrude in our personal lives be justified? Let me know in the comments.
Until next time, stay safe and secure!