Just in case you missed it – Mick Raven
Others in the intelligence community, especially in the US, will grudgingly credit Snowden for starting a much-needed debate about where the line should be drawn between privacy and surveillance. The former deputy director of the NSA Richard Ledgett, when retiring last year, said the government should have made public the fact there was bulk collection of phone data.
The former GCHQ director Sir David Omand shared Fleming’s assessment of the damage but admitted Snowden had contributed to the introduction of new legislation. “A sounder and more transparent legal framework is now in place for necessary intelligence gathering. That would have happened eventually, of course, but his actions certainly hastened the process,” Omand said.
Ross Anderson, a leading academic specialising in cybersecurity and privacy, sees the Snowden revelations as a seminal moment. Anderson, a professor of security engineering at Cambridge University’s computer laboratory, said: “Snowden’s revelations are one of these flashbulb moments which change the way people look at things.
They may not have changed things much in Britain because of our culture for adoring James Bond and all his works. But round the world it brought home to everyone that surveillance really is an issue.”
MPs and much of the UK media did not engage to the same extent of their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, the US, Latin America, Asia and Australia. Among the exceptions was the Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert, who pressed the issue until he lost his seat in 2015. “The Snowden revelations were a huge shock but they have led to a much greater transparency from some of the agencies about the sort of the things they were doing,” he said.
One of the disclosures to have most impact was around the extent of collaboration between the intelligence agencies and internet companies. In 2013, the US companies were outsmarting the EU in negotiations over data protection. Snowden landed like a bomb in the middle of the negotiations and the data protection law that took effect last month is a consequence.
One of the most visible effects of the Snowden revelations was the small yellow bubble that began popping up on the messaging service WhatsApp in April 2016: “Messages to this chat and calls are now secured with end-to-end encryption.”
Before Snowden, such encryption was for the targeted and the paranoid. “If I can take myself back to 2013,” said Jillian York, the director for international freedom of expression at the digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “I maybe had the precursor to [the encrypted communication app] Signal on my phone, TextSecure. I had [another email encryption tool] PGP, but nobody used it.” The only major exception was Apple’s iMessage, which has been end-to-end encrypted since it was launched in 2011.
Developers at major technology companies, outraged by the Snowden disclosures, started pushing back. Some, such as those at WhatsApp, which was bought by Facebook a year after the story broke, implemented their own encryption. Others, such as Yahoo’s Alex Stamos, quit rather than support further eavesdropping. (Stamos is now the head of security at Facebook.)
“Without Snowden,” said York. “I don’t think Signal would have got the funding. I don’t think Facebook would have had Alex Stamos, because he would have been at Yahoo. These little things led to big things. It’s not like all these companies were like “we care about privacy”. I think they were pushed.”
Other shifts in the technology sector show Snowden’s influence has in many ways been limited. The rise of the “smart speaker”, exemplified by Amazon’s Echo, has left many privacy activists baffled. Why, just a few years after a global scandal involving government surveillance, would people willingly install always-on microphones in their homes?
“The new-found privacy conundrum presented by installing a device that can literally listen to everything you’re saying represents a chilling new development in the age of internet-connected things,” wrote Gizmodo’s Adam Clark Estes last year.
Towards the end of the interview, Snowden recalled one of his early aliases, Cincinnatus, after the Roman who after public service returned to his farm. Snowden said he too felt that, having played his role, he had retreated to a quieter life, spending time developing tools to help journalists protect their sources. “I do not think I have ever been more fulfilled,” he said.
But he will not be marking the anniversary with a “victory lap”, he said. There is still much to be done. “The fightback is just beginning,” said Snowden. “The governments and the corporates have been in this game a long time and we are just getting started.”