Edward Snowden Is Worried People Will Forget About Edward Snowden

The standard-bearer for spy-agency reform fears NSA fatigue is leading to a culture of complacency.

National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Aug. 13, 2014, 11:01 a.m.

At the bot­tom of an ex­pans­ive pro­file of him in Wired magazine pub­lished on­line Wed­nes­day, Ed­ward Snowden dis­closed one of his biggest fears.

What if, gradu­ally, people are grow­ing ac­cus­tomed to mass gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance?

The fu­git­ive leak­er, who more than a year ago aired the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s dirty sur­veil­lance laun­dry to a couple of hand-picked journ­al­ists, is wor­ried that pub­lic agit­a­tion about the sweep­ing scope of bulk data col­lec­tion is wan­ing with time—and with it, the de­sire to re­form the gov­ern­ment’s spy agen­cies.

As journ­al­ist James Bam­ford, who spent three days in Mo­scow with the 31-year-old com­puter tech­ni­cian, writes:

An­oth­er con­cern for Snowden is what he calls NSA fa­tigue—the pub­lic be­com­ing numb to dis­clos­ures of mass sur­veil­lance, just as it be­comes in­ured to news of battle deaths dur­ing a war. “One death is a tragedy, and a mil­lion is a stat­ist­ic,” he says, mord­antly quot­ing Stal­in. “Just as the vi­ol­a­tion of An­gela Merkel’s rights is a massive scan­dal and the vi­ol­a­tion of 80 mil­lion Ger­mans is a non­story.” Nor is he op­tim­ist­ic that the next elec­tion will bring any mean­ing­ful re­form.

Is the pres­sure for NSA re­form eas­ing? It has been 14 months since Snowden met with journ­al­ists Glenn Gre­en­wald and Laura Poitras in Hong Kong to hand over a treas­ure trove of clas­si­fied doc­u­ments he down­loaded while work­ing for Booz Al­len Hamilton in Hawaii. And des­pite pledges from Pres­id­ent Obama last Janu­ary that the NSA would un­der­go changes and re­gain the pub­lic’s trust—if Con­gress sent him an ap­pro­pri­ate re­form pack­age—no such bills have since been signed in­to law.

Shortly after an ini­tial wave of neg­at­ive back­lash that greeted Snowden when his leaks first sur­faced in June 2013, the pub­lic began clam­or­ing for re­form, as a clear­er por­trait of the NSA’s bulk col­lec­tion of do­mest­ic phone metadata—the time stamps, loc­a­tion, and num­bers as­so­ci­ated with a call but not its ac­tu­al con­tents—began to emerge. As a res­ult, the House nearly de­fun­ded the NSA’s sur­veil­lance pro­grams in Ju­ly 2013, when an amend­ment backed by Reps. Justin Amash and John Con­yers fell just 12 votes short of passing.

That sud­den re­buke of the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies was seen at the time as a fore­bod­ing omen of what was ahead, but it wasn’t un­til May of this year that the House passed a watered-down ver­sion of the USA Free­dom Act, which tech com­pan­ies and pri­vacy ad­voc­ates de­rided as an in­suf­fi­cient and loop­hole-laden an­swer to NSA spy­ing.

But last month, Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy in­tro­duced a beefed-up ver­sion of the Free­dom Act, which has been re­ceived warmly by most NSA crit­ics and en­dorsed by the White House. The meas­ure would bar the NSA from col­lect­ing Amer­ic­an phone re­cords in bulk and in­stead re­quire phone com­pan­ies to store the data, which the gov­ern­ment can re­quest on an as-needed basis. It spe­cifies that the NSA can’t gath­er all data from broad “tar­gets” such as a par­tic­u­lar ser­vice pro­vider or zip code, and cre­ates a pan­el of spe­cial ad­voc­ates to sup­port pri­vacy rights be­fore the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court, among oth­er re­forms.

Des­pite the bill’s back­ing, it still faces hurdles from de­fense hawks like Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Di­anne Fein­stein and pri­vacy zealots like Sen. Ron Wyden, who ar­gue that it still doesn’t go far enough. It re­mains un­clear wheth­er the Sen­ate will find time after its Au­gust re­cess to get to sur­veil­lance re­form in its short, elec­tion-year cal­en­dar.

Mean­while, Snowden and his con­fid­ants are work­ing to keep gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance in the news and to pre­vent “NSA fa­tigue.” As Gre­en­wald and oth­ers con­tin­ue to pub­lish a steady drip of rev­el­a­tions about the NSA and oth­er spy agen­cies, Snowden is cash­ing in on his no­tori­ety with ad­di­tion­al pub­li­city.

The fu­git­ive re­mains elu­sive to U.S. au­thor­it­ies, who want him to come home to face es­pi­on­age charges. But if 2013 saw Snowden dash­ing around the globe in search of refuge from U.S. au­thor­it­ies, 2014 has been a year of stead­ily in­creas­ing will­ing­ness to draw at­ten­tion, either by speak­ing at events via Skype or Google Hangouts or grant­ing ac­cess to journ­al­ists.

In the past few months, NBC’s Bri­an Wil­li­ams, The Guard­i­an, and now Wired have sat down for ex­tens­ive in­ter­views with Snowden. Each in­ter­view has at­trac­ted broad in­terest and dis­cus­sion, but not just be­cause Snowden is an in­ter­na­tion­ally known fu­git­ive. In all of them, Snowden has dropped new de­tails about the NSA sur­veil­lance prac­tices or his time work­ing as a con­tract­or with Booz Al­len, adding fresh in­gredi­ents to a de­bate that is now more than a year old.

Mean­while, as Snowden at­tempts to re­main rel­ev­ant—Wired‘s cov­er photo finds hims draped in an Amer­ic­an flag, which is in­furi­at­ing some of his de­tract­ors—he hedges his bets by con­tinu­ing to ar­gue that tech­no­logy, and not polit­ics, may be the best av­en­ue to sur­veil­lance re­form.

“We have the means and we have the tech­no­logy to end mass sur­veil­lance without any le­gis­lat­ive ac­tion at all, without any policy changes,” Snowden told Wired. “By ba­sic­ally ad­opt­ing changes like mak­ing en­cryp­tion a uni­ver­sal stand­ard—where all com­mu­nic­a­tions are en­cryp­ted by de­fault—we can end mass sur­veil­lance not just in the United States but around the world.”

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