Seven years after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden exposed the agency’s mass surveillance of Americans, a federal court ruled the NSA program was illegal.
The NSA program, Judge Marsha Berzon of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote, went beyond what the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act permits. Defenders of the program claimed it had been useful in foiling terrorist activities, but the court ruled that claim inconsistent with the records.
The program, called PRISM, was initiated after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a way to monitor potential terrorist activities. It was ended on November 29, 2015 when portions of the 2015 USA Freedom Act eliminated bulk collection from the purview of the Patriot Act, a retaliatory surveillance bill passed 45 days after 9/11.
“You can go back to the founders of this country, basically, Benjamin Franklin,” said Jacob Furst, professor of computer security at DePaul, who went on to paraphrase Franklin’s quote, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
In an era of pervasive data collection by both private companies and government agencies, Americans are increasingly concerned about the security of their personal data. A June 2019 public opinion survey by the Pew Research Center found that 78% of adults in the U.S. don’t understand what the government does with the data it collects.
The survey, which polled 4,272 people, also found that 66% think the risks of government data collection outweigh the benefits.
“Technology has made it easy to collect vast amounts of data, far more than Franklin…ever could have imagined,” Furst said. “And people being what they are, it’s gonna be abused. One of the lesser-known but intriguing revelations Snowden made was that the first thing every new employee at the NSA does is run an exhaustive search on some number of previous lovers.”
The misuses of Americans’ data aren’t limited to what Snowden exposed from the NSA. Between 2013 and 2015, auditors found that 88 police officers in departments across Minnesota used their access to driver’s license databases to look up information on girlfriends, family members and friends. The same auditors determined over half of the state’s 11,000 police officers misused their access to private data.
A 2016 investigation by the Associated Press found that police departments across the country engaged in similar misuses of private data. The 2019 Pew survey found that the public is worried about this kind of misuse — 64% of respondents were concerned about how data collected by the government is used.
“In terms of privacy, probably our best look right now is the European privacy regulation, the [General Data Protection Regulation],” Furst said. “And that basically says that people can request to have information deleted from government records.”
A July 2019 public opinion poll by the Internet Innovation Alliance found that 72% of Americans support the idea of a nationwide online data privacy law like the GDPR. Barring that kind of regulation, Furst said the public is right to be concerned about how the government uses their private data.
“People are not scared enough about their privacy,” Furst said. “I think there’s just not enough, for most people, not an appreciation of how powerful technology makes both the surveillance, and the post-surveillance analysis, powerful for good and evil.”
Following the Sept. 2 appeals court ruling on the NSA, Snowden said on Twitter that he “never imagined” he’d see the courts hold the NSA accountable.
“And yet that day has arrived,” he said.
Snowden, who leaked details of the program to journalists at The Guardian, fled the country after blowing the whistle, eventually landing in Russia, where he’s lived in exile ever since. He still faces espionage charges in the U.S.
After news of Snowden’s 2013 leaks was published, some hailed him as a hero while others vilified him. Pew surveys following his exposure of NSA surveillance found higher percentages of Americans found it unacceptable for the government to monitor citizens’ communications.
“What the NSA was doing was illegal, and if we can’t hold our government agencies to task, then we have a significant problem as a democracy,” Furst said. “There’s very little doubt in my mind that Edward Snowden is an American hero.”