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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Information, please

Politics | Privacy advocates of different political stripes want to halt or declassify the government’s leaked surveillance programs

Issue: "No pray zone?," July 13, 2013

A man who made his living keeping the truth secret was lying to his own boss. Edward Snowden, a Booz Allen Hamilton employee on contract in Hawaii for the U.S. National Security Agency, told his government supervisor he needed “a couple of weeks” off work to treat his epilepsy.

In fact, Snowden, 30, was preparing to board a flight to Hong Kong, where he planned to launch one of the biggest intelligence community leaks in U.S. history. Walking away from a six-figure career as a computer technician with security clearance, he told his girlfriend he would be gone for a few weeks, without elaborating, and caught his plane.

In Hong Kong, Snowden shut himself up in an expensive hotel for three weeks, ordering meals to his room and rarely venturing outdoors. The career spy worried about being spied upon: He lined pillows against the door and spread a red hood over his head and laptop whenever he typed passwords—precautions against eavesdroppers and hidden cameras.

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Over his internet connection, he began leaking classified documents to reporters at The Washington Post and The Guardian. The files—a secret court order, a PowerPoint presentation—were like bombshells. They gave undeniable proof of massive, systematic surveillance programs the U.S. government has used for years to collect trillions of pieces of information, secretly but apparently legally.

In one of the programs, code-named MAINWAY, the National Security Agency (NSA) collects phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, dragnet style. In another, named PRISM, it collects emails and internet activity records of foreign suspects, sometimes sweeping in Americans’ data as part of the investigations.

Privacy advocates had warned of the likelihood of broad government surveillance before, but the Snowden leaks brought the secretive programs into an unprecedented light. Snowden, who claimed he couldn’t “in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom, and basic liberties for people around the world,” got what he wanted: a public debate on surveillance and privacy in post-9/11 America.

Depending on where individual Americans land in that debate, they’ve tended to portray Snowden as either a hero or a traitor. Strikingly, criticism of surveillance programs—or defense of them—has cut across party lines, and the leaks are giving privacy advocates across the political spectrum opportunity to press for reforms.

Illustrating the party divisions, two of the most vocal critics of the secret surveillance programs, Democratic senators Mark Udall of Colorado and Ron Wyden of Oregon, found their viewpoint backed by some Republicans, like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas. Huelskamp called the indiscriminate collection of American phone data an infringement on “fundamental constitutional rights.”

Most lawmakers, however, including the chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees—a Republican and a Democrat—appeared to be banding together to defend the programs as legal and necessary terror-fighting tools. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called Snowden a “traitor,” and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he should be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law” for tipping off the nation’s enemies by revealing classified information.

Three former NSA employees thought otherwise. Thomas Drake, William Binney, and J. Kirk Wiebe, onetime whistle-blowers who first protested overreaching of government surveillance more than a decade ago, said they felt Snowden was justified in leaking information in the public interest. Snowden in late June was hiding in Russia, awaiting his fate and the outcome of a U.S. investigation.

Some of the political synergy sparked by the surveillance programs has been unintentional: Because of the leaks, two very different watchdog organizations have filed lawsuits against the U.S. government. One is the conservative Freedom Watch, whose founder was once labeled a “one-man tea party.” The other is the American Civil Liberties Union, a civil rights organization with a solid reputation for trying to remove faith (Christian faith in particular) from the public square.

This time, though, the ACLU is concerned about genuine privacy rights—its own. The ACLU is a customer of Verizon Business Network Services, the company targeted in a secret court order Snowden made public. In the April 25 order, the government demanded call “metadata” for all the phone company’s customers, including the time and duration of each call, and the numbers of both parties (but not actual conversations).

Verizon was just one of many phone companies secretly ordered to turn over phone call metadata to the MAINWAY system at the NSA. Since 2006 the government has been logging tens of millions of U.S. citizen’s phone calls in order to search for suspicious patterns. Metadata, including recently dialed numbers, would allow an analyst to spot a call to Afghanistan—or theoretically, to a political organization or a love interest. (Officials insist the database is only used to ferret out terrorist connections.)

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