Everything We Learned From Edward Snowden in 2013

Leaks from the fugitive former NSA contractor told us a lot about the scope of America’s Internet and phone surveillance powers. We could learn even more in 2014.

The U.S. and Britain spied on OPEC, according to documents released by Edward Snowden.
National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Dustin Volz
Dec. 31, 2013, 1 a.m.

He didn’t win Time‘s Per­son of the Year award or rank in Google’s year-end list of top searches, but Ed­ward Snowden re­peatedly dom­in­ated Wash­ing­ton’s policy con­ver­sa­tion in 2013 — and he did it without ever set­ting foot here.

Be­gin­ning in June, Snowden’s leaks de­tail­ing the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s vast data col­lec­tion pro­grams promp­ted a seem­ingly end­less tor­rent of ex­posés in ma­jor pub­lic­a­tions around the world. The dis­clos­ures not only re­veal the size of the NSA’s phone and In­ter­net metadata drag­net, but the at-times cava­lier ar­rog­ance with which agency ana­lysts boast about their sur­veil­lance muscle.

The 30-year-old fu­git­ive now has all three branches of U.S. gov­ern­ment dis­cuss­ing the need for sur­veil­lance re­form, and many for­eign heads of state ques­tion­ing how much they can trust Pres­id­ent Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion.

So what, ex­actly, did we learn from Snowden this year? Here’s an abridged re­count of the ma­jor rev­el­a­tions:

  • June 5: Ve­r­i­zon on “an on­go­ing, daily basis” provides the NSA in­form­a­tion on tele­phone calls with­in the U.S. and between the U.S. and oth­er coun­tries. (The Guard­i­an)

  • June 6: A secret pro­gram known as PRISM that began in 2007 col­lects for­eign com­mu­nic­a­tions traffic from the serv­ers of nine lead­ing U.S. In­ter­net com­pan­ies, namely Mi­crosoft, Google, Ya­hoo, Face­book, PayTalk, You­Tube, Skype, AOL, and Apple. (The Wash­ing­ton Post)

  • Ju­ly 31: XKey­score, the NSA’s self-de­scribed “widest-reach­ing” in­tel­li­gence sys­tem, is a soft­ware tool that al­lows ana­lysts, re­portedly without au­thor­iz­a­tion, to search through enorm­ous data­bases con­tain­ing emails, on­line chats, and the brows­ing his­tor­ies of mil­lions of in­di­vidu­als. (The Guard­i­an)

  • Aug. 29: The gov­ern­ment’s top-secret “black budget” de­tails the al­loc­a­tion in fisc­al 2013 of $52.6 bil­lion for 16 fed­er­al spy agen­cies that com­prise the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­munity. (The Wash­ing­ton Post)

  • Oct. 30: In tan­dem with the Brit­ish Gov­ern­ment Com­mu­nic­a­tions Headquar­ters, a pro­gram known as MUS­CU­LAR secretly in­filt­rates and cop­ies data flows across fiber-op­tic cables trans­port­ing in­form­a­tion among data cen­ters of Ya­hoo and Google. (The Wash­ing­ton Post)

  • Nov. 26: The NSA gath­ers re­cords of on­line sexu­al activ­ity and vis­its to porn sites in an ef­fort to dis­cred­it the repu­ta­tions of those be­lieved to be ji­hadist rad­ic­al­izers. (Huff­ing­ton Post)

  • Dec. 4: The NSA is track­ing 5 bil­lion re­cords a day that mon­it­or the loc­a­tion of cell phones around the world. “In scale, scope and po­ten­tial im­pact on pri­vacy, the ef­forts to col­lect and ana­lyze loc­a­tion data may be un­sur­passed among the NSA sur­veil­lance pro­grams.” (The Wash­ing­ton Post)

  • Dec. 9: Agents work­ing for the NSA and Bri­tain’s GCHQ are in­filt­rat­ing the vir­tu­al real­it­ies of on­line video games such as World of War­craft and Second Life in an ef­fort to catch and foil pos­sible ter­ror­ist plots. (The New York Times)

  • Dec. 10: The NSA uses Google-ac­quired “cook­ies,” re­lied upon by In­ter­net ad­vert­isers to track pref­er­ences of con­sumers, to loc­ate tar­gets for hack­ing. (The Wash­ing­ton Post)

  • Dec. 20: The NSA paid RSA, a large com­puter se­cur­ity firm, $10 mil­lion to build and pro­mote a flawed en­cryp­tion sys­tem that left open a “back door” through which the agency’s in­tel­li­gence ana­lysts could ac­cess data on com­puters around the world. (Re­u­ters)

The flurry of new de­tails that emerged in Decem­ber in­dic­ate even more Snowden-fueled ex­poses could be com­ing in 2014. The slow bleed this far has been, at least in part, de­lib­er­ate. Former Guard­i­an journ­al­ist Glenn Gre­en­wald, who is one of Snowden’s ori­gin­al con­fid­ants, said in an in­ter­view earli­er this year that he hit the brakes on Snowden leaks after writ­ing or help­ing to pub­lish five stor­ies on five con­sec­ut­ive days in June.

“Even our al­lies were say­ing, ‘Look, this is too much in­form­a­tion. We can’t keep up with what you’re pub­lish­ing,’ ” Gre­en­wald said.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.