What we know now: 365 days of surveillance revelations

Exactly one year ago today, The Guardian released the first of a series of stories based on secret NSA documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden. The news that the U.S. government was collecting the phone records of millions of Verizon customers on an “ongoing, daily basis” set off a media firestorm. In the following days, weeks, and months, we learned that not only was the NSA collecting call records, it had several secret, invasive surveillance programs, including one that collected billions of records of internet communications from individuals around the world. We came to find out that it’s not just the NSA that is reported to engage in mass surveillance, but intelligence agencies around the world, including the British, German, Australian and French spy services.

Access and other civil society groups called for an immediate halt to the government mass surveillance programs, reform of overbroad and ambiguous legal provisions, and for greater transparency about the government’s spying activities as well as for those responsible for such egregious violations of our rights to be held accountable. As the revelations continued, the concern about the impact of government surveillance on our fundamental freedoms increased, and calls for immediate restoration of human rights principles to surveillance programs grew louder.

The surveillance programs detailed in the first leaks were just the tip of a very large iceberg. This past year has been full of revelations about mass surveillance programs, each more dystopian than the last. In honor of the anniversary of the initial Snowden revelations, Access has compiled a brief overview of what we know now:

Surveillance agencies are watching almost everyone… 

…but practically no one has been watching the watchers.

Mass surveillance probably violates domestic and international law and the U.S. Constitution… 

…and NSA analysts have definitely violated privacy laws.

The NSA has made the internet, and all its users, less secure…

…but mass surveillance programs are not making us safer.

The more light that is shed on surveillance programs, the less the public approves. A majority of Americans now disapprove of the NSA’s programs and think that Snowden’s revelations were the right thing to do. Given that the NSA has misrepresented the scope and efficacy of its programs to even the government officials involved in surveillance oversight, we have every reason to think that the state of affairs is worse than what we now “know” it to be.

What’s more, it seems that revelations about the NSA and GCHQ have caused a surveillance “space race,” compelling the German BND to ask for 300 million Euros to extend its surveillance program. The Swiss government is currently attempting to give itself an expanded legal mandate to surveil online communications and to increase mandatory data retention, even though this technique is not effective at combating serious crime.

The time for surveillance reform was yesterday. That’s why Access has long pushed for the adoption of the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, which explicitly state that mass surveillance violates fundamental freedoms, and outlines how human rights obligations apply when conducting communications surveillance. Access has also condemned the NSA’s weakening of online security and supported legislation that would keep the NSA out of cryptography standards. While legislative restraints are still lacking, Encrypt All the Things, Access’ campaign to promote the Digital Security Action Plan (which features seven security-enhancing steps to help raise the floor on how data is protected) is encouraging companies to take tangible steps to secure their users, making it harder for governments to spy on us.

The past year has, at times, seemed like an ever-worsening parade of Orwellian revelations. The bright side is that conversations about digital freedoms and national security are no longer being held in back rooms, but in open chambers. One example of this is that the UN General Assembly passed a resolution affirming that member states have the obligation to respect and protect the right to privacy in the context of digital communications.

The Snowden revelations have turned an intense spotlight on the future of human rights in a world where mass surveillance is only a few clicks away. What we know now illustrates that our digital rights will continue to be eroded unless we fight back. We may not have the NSA’s endless resources, but we do have you, our global community. With your generous support we can do what it takes to defend and extend the digital rights of users at risk around the world.

Can you help us keep the momentum going? Support Access’ global efforts by donating today!