It’s been two years since former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden stole and leaked hundreds of documents to the media about the United States’ spy and surveillance programs. His actions made headlines around the globe — and prompted changes in the way governments spy on their people.
In the United States, the disclosure culminated with Congress' passage of the USA Freedom Act this month. The law limits the powers of government agencies to snoop on phone and Internet records and ends the former policy of bulk collection of data on millions of Americans by the government.
Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas spoke against the legislation. “When [FBI] Director [James] Comey says they have open inquiries in all 56 FBI field offices about the potential threat of homegrown terrorists, I take that very, very seriously," he said. "And I believe it's absolutely reckless for us to take any unnecessary chances.”
Speaking at an Amnesty International event Wednesday via video link from Russia — to which he fled after leaking the stolen security documents in 2013 — Snowden said the USA Freedom Act vindicated his actions.
"For the first time in 40 years in U.S. history, since the intelligence was reformed in the '70s, we found that facts had become more persuasive than fear," he said. "For the first time in recent history, we found that despite the claims of government, the public made the final decision, and that is a radical change that we should seize on, we should value, and we should push further."
Amnesty International’s Sherif Elsayed-Ali said governments must accept they have lost the debate over the legitimacy of mass surveillance.
“There has been a really big pushback against these programs," he said. "We’ve seen international experts at the United Nations, we’ve seen courts declaring that these programs are unlawful, are contrary to human rights principles, are contrary to international legal obligations. And we’ve seen big technology companies starting to implement new measures to protect privacy.”
But the turmoil caused by the unmasking of the surveillance programs has exacted a heavy price, argued Robin Simcox of the Henry Jackson Society, a Britain-based policy analysis group.
Government contractors and employees have specific ways to take complaints forward and report flaws in the system or things they would like to see changed, "and it’s not the pages of The Guardian or The Washington Post," Simcox said. "Snowden revealed a host of secrets that have hindered our intelligence agencies' ability to protect national security.”
In Britain, meanwhile, an emergency surveillance law that was put on a fast track through Parliament is being challenged in court. The law allows agencies to gather people’s phone and Internet data. The government says it is vital in the fight against crime and terrorism.
Two years on from Snowden’s leaks, the battle between civil liberties and surveillance rages on.