I don’t normally comment of breaking news stories, but this one is so ground-breaking and important I felt it had to be commented on.
On 6th June 2013, Glenn Greenwald published an article in the Guardian newspaper that disclosed the NSA (National Security Agency in the US) had been gathering the telephone call records of millions of US citizens under a FISA court order. The second article published the next day disclosed the PRISM project where the NSA collected the internet records from the large internet companies (e.g. Google, Apple, Microsoft) together with the Washington Post who also independently posted an article. It should be noted that these companies denied this at the time and do so to this day.
On 9th June 2013 the source of these leaks was disclosed as Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor and systems administrator at the time. In the wake of these disclosures he attempted to flee to a neutral country but ended up being trapped in Russia where he has been since. If he were ever to return to the US be would be arrested and charged with crimes under the US Espionage Act.
In the wake of these disclosures, we saw a massive movement to start encrypting everything. Now we have as default:
- Encrypted websites (HTTPS) as the default mode – anyone not using this is now considered suspicious.
- Instant messaging applications are all largely encrypted (e.g. WhatsApp, Signal)
- Cloud storage is largely encrypted in transit and sometimes depending on the provider at rest, and as we have recommended on this site that any files posted to cloud storage should be encrypted before they are posted
- A renewed focus on encrypting email.
So, what has happened?
On Wednesday 2 September 2020, the US Court of Appeals for the ninth circuit handed down a judgement that the NSA’s warrantless surveillance programme relating to the mass collection of US telephone records was illegal, violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and may well have been unconstitutional. Snowden said on is Twitter account:
Some of you may consider Edward Snowden a traitor, a criminal and guilty of treason for disclosing what are highly classified documents to the press. Some may look on him as a hero. Whatever your thoughts on the matter, the fact remains that the practice of the NSA in its mass surveillance programmes was illegal. These programmes were initiated in the wake of the 9/11 attacks by the then Bush administration and continued through the Obama administration. It was only when this was made public in 2013 that questions started to be asked.
While I suspect these programmes have been curtailed, I expect the NSA (as well as the GCHQ and other intelligence agencies around the world) is still conducting mass surveillance to this day, if not on US soil then through partner intelligence agencies.
Make up your own mind
The following video is Snowdon’s interview with Glenn Greenwald announcing to the world that he was the whistle blower behind these stories in 2013.
You can also read the original article from the Guardian here.
What can’t be denied is that these disclosures have changed the landscape of electronic communication. And now the US government, UK government and several other countries are trying to water down the end-to-end encryption of, or introduce backdoors into, encrypted email and chat apps.
Let’s be very clear about this. Without end-to-end encryption where the decryption keys are not known by the hosting company (so called Zero Knowledge Encryption), there can be no privacy.
I can recommend the following books and video if you want to learn more from the sources:
- No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald
- Permanent Record – Edward Snowdon’s own Autobiography
- Citizenfour – Laura Poitras documentary on the events in Hong Kong during the original disclosures.
There was also a dramatization of the life of Edward Snowden called Snowden, which is almost accurate although there are some inaccuracies in the time line.
I can also recommend “The Perfect Weapon: war, sabotage, and fear in the cyber age” by David E. Sanger. There are others, but until I have read them I am uncomfortable recommending them.
Earlier in August 2020, it was reported that “Trump is considering pardoning Edward Snowden“. I will believe that when I see it.