Snowden anniversary a reminder of the need to protect whistleblowers and journalists

Seth Stern

Director of Advocacy

Laura Poitras / Praxis Films, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Today marks the 10th anniversary of whistleblower and longtime Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) board member Edward Snowden’s stunning revelations of mass surveillance by the National Security Agency.

Over the course of several weeks starting June 5, 2013, Snowden, through a series of stories in The Guardian and The Washington Post, exposed the alarming scope of the data the NSA and other agencies collected on people’s phone calls, text messages and online activities. Snowden’s disclosures prompted other media outlets to investigate the NSA and further develop the disturbing picture the leaked documents painted.

The ramifications of Snowden’s disclosures — both cultural and political — continue to this day. They range from the prevalence of encryption in our everyday communications, to the bipartisan pushback lawmakers can now expect when they seek to expand the government’s surveillance powers, to legislative accomplishments like the 2015 USA Freedom Act and the sunsetting of surveillance powers conferred by the PATRIOT Act. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recapped some of the other major progress attributable to the Snowden disclosures.

The series of stories, which later won the Pulitzer Prize for both the Guardian and Post, offers a case study in the power of whistleblowers and journalists to alter the course of history (as well as an early illustration of the importance of digital security and encryption for journalists). Unfortunately, that’s exactly why our government insists on retaining the power to prosecute journalists despite its proclamations that “journalism is not a crime.”

And intelligence agencies certainly have not committed themselves to transparency over the last decade. On Friday we found out that the NSA is inventing questionable new ways to deny Freedom of Information requests. Last month we learned of shocking abuses by the FBI of its purported authority under Section 702 of FISA to spy on George Floyd protesters and others — the very same authority many of the original Snowden stories centered around.

Despite the impact of Snowden’s disclosures, every subsequent battle to shine light on the surveillance state, much less reform it, has been hard fought. The fight to end mass surveillance under Section 702, which is up for renewal this year, will be no different. Same goes for the campaign to pass the PRESS Act and stop the government from spying on journalists.

Sadly, the path forward for the next Snowden hasn’t gotten much easier (although, as Snowden’s fellow FPF board member Daniel Ellsberg recently noted, whistleblowers can now choose to remain anonymous through SecureDrop). Like many whistleblowers before and since, Snowden knew full well he was destroying his career and risking his freedom when he blew the whistle. He did it anyway because it was the right thing to do, and now he’s a fugitive, trapped by the U.S. government in Russia.

And every time there’s a new leak, the government — sometimes even with help from the media — focuses the narrative on the supposedly imminent parade of horribles that inevitably fails to materialize, diverting public attention from the content of the leaks. But 10 years later, there is no evidence of the irreparable harm that Snowden was constantly accused of causing to our national security, especially in comparison to the undeniable public good that resulted from his actions. Whistleblowers and leakers are far more likely to embarrass politicians and end illegal practices than to endanger innocent lives.

You’ll surely hear more about this 10-year anniversary, from us and others. It should serve as a reminder that whistleblowers who reveal official illegality, and the journalists with whom they collaborate, should be the subjects of admiration, not indictments. When the government breaks the law, it should expect whistleblowers to tell the press and the press to tell the public. It has no one to blame for the fallout but itself.

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