Six Months After NSA Story Broke, Snowden Looks Even More Patriotic

12/16/2013 09:00
by Dan Gillmor

Six months ago last week, The Guardian and The Washington Post published the first stories based on leaks from Edward Snowden. Since then, in what has become a steady drumbeat of revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency and other nations' spy agencies, we've learned how utterly hostile our governments have become to our most fundamental rights in the post-Sept. 11 world -- but we've also seen the first genuine pushback by some of the people who have the power to make a near-term difference.

The resisters include politicians, some of whom are among those most responsible for laws and policies that were bad to begin with, but which have been twisted and extended to include all manner of activities. They also include technology companies, which have belatedly realized their own responsibility, if not culpability, and are doing something about it.

This week, for example, Microsoft said it would beef up its defenses against government snoops. Its general counsel said on the company's blog that it would join Google and Twitter in using a method called "perfect forward secrecy" to protect its users from having their data intercepted. Yet it's difficult to take Microsoft all that seriously given its record as an apparently willing enabler of surveillance. For example, there is no longer much question that its Skype service has been deliberately compromised on behalf of security and law enforcement services. So when Microsoft takes these new, loud vows on behalf of its users and customers, I'm pleased, but not persuaded.

[Ed. Note: If you want to wait until the government responds to these companies, you're more than welcome to. But if you want to make take precautions now in case they fail, then you'll want to watch this.]

Meanwhile, as noted in The Guardian not long ago, the Internet "cloud" companies offering online services have by definition created technology that lends itself to surveillance, initially by the companies themselves, in order to provide the services. But that means they are vulnerable to hacking or government orders. This can't be solved by anyone but the industry and their customers.

Lawmakers can do more to protect their citizens, and there's a rising recognition in Congress that America has gone too far. There's genuine momentum for at least some reform. The USA Freedom Act would curb some bulk collection of data and has bipartisan support, and this is progress.

As with tech promises, take this with a grain of salt too. First, it's a bare-bones improvement, and hardly what we need to restrain our out-of-control agencies. Second, powerful politicians are pushing to make surveillance even more ingrained in our lives. Finally, some of the people who sound most ardent to repair civil liberties were, under George Bush, among the most willing to curb them. So when a key author of the Patriot Act -- a law that did more to take us down this path than any other in recent times -- says he's upset by what's going on and wants to dial back the law, be prepared for him to change his mind for the worse under the next Republican president.

We shouldn't take seriously President Obama's promise to a TV interviewer that he is planning to "rein in" the surveillance. The president's record of broken promises when it comes to civil liberties is long and disheartening. What is valuable, however, is that he is now on the defensive.

These past six months have been notable not just for what we've learned, but how we've learned it: via a press that does its job. The spectacle in Parliament this week, when MPs grilled Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and invited U.K. authorities to lay out a criminal case they may be preparing to bring against The Guardian and its journalists, was a reminder of journalism's most essential role: telling truth to -- and about -- the people and institutions that wield and often abuse power.

Yet it is Edward Snowden who probably deserves the most appreciation right now. With each new revelation, it becomes clearer that he has done a public service of the highest order. We can hope that people in power will eventually recognize that and make a deal that will give him asylum in a Western democracy or, better yet, a way back home as a genuine patriot who committed an act of justified civil disobedience.

Who has demonstrated more honor? Is it Snowden or the people, also deeply patriotic, who run our national security apparatus? I don't doubt that the spies truly believe they've also done what is necessary. But they've lied to Congress and the American people; trampled on our civil liberties; and, in general, violated their sworn oaths to defend the Constitution. Who's the greater patriot?


Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Centre for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. His most recent book is Mediactive (2010), and he has a blog of the same name about how people can be empowered as new media users. This article originally appeared here, in The Guardian. 2013 Agora Financial, LLC.