By: Bryan Reines On June 14, 2013, United States federal prosecutors charged Edward Snowden with espionage and theft of government property. Snowden is accused of leaking government documents pertaining to top-secret surveillance programs. Specifically, Snowden is charged with revealing the National Security Agency’s (NSA) mass surveillance program, PRISM, details about the NSA’s phone call database, and a data analysis system known as Boundless Informant. Since Snowden’s leaks were first published in The Washington Post and The Guardian, his actions have jolted the security vs. privacy debate into the information age.1 Furthermore, Snowden has placed himself alongside an echelon of historic figures, from Daniel Ellsberg to Julian Assange, whose leaks have rebuked government secrecy and conjured up images of an Orwellian nightmare.
The Snowden issue quickly traversed our borders, and became a foreign affairs crisis for the Obama Administration not only because the leaks disclosed how the U.S. collects data on other countries, but also because his high profile transnational voyage and the question of his asylum has exposed a less than friendly international sentiment throughout the world, especially in Latin America.2 While Snowden’s actions may have been illegal, they were far from immoral and will inevitably encourage crucial discourse on the role of government in the 21st century and beyond.
What is PRISM?
Since Snowden’s reveal, PRISM has come under much scrutiny. Despite American and international uproar over these practices, the program was not the first data collection effort launched by the American government; in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, President Bush implemented what would later become a highly criticized warrantless wiretapping program.3 In contrast to the Bush administration’s wiretapping program, the PRISM program was authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court, established in 1978 for the purpose of granting warrants against suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the United States.4 In 2013, Snowden leaked a document showing that the FISA court authorized the collection of all phone tracing data from Verizon business customers. Nine other prominent U.S. Internet companies, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, Youtube, and Apple, were allegedly involved in the PRISM snooping.5 Though all of the companies have denied knowledge of the spying, The Washington Post reports that these companies knowingly participated in the clandestine program.6
Despite the PRISM program’s apparent legality, these types of mass surveillance programs may be unconstitutional. The ACLU and Freedom Watch USA filed a pair of lawsuits on June 11, 2013 that aim to bring these constitutional questions to the Supreme Court on 1st and 4th amendments grounds.7 8 America’s judicial system will now be forced to weigh in on the issues of security and privacy in public, rather than behind the locked doors of the FISA court, and Snowden is the man we can thank.
Where in the World is Edward Snowden?
Before the leak, Snowden fled to Hong Kong, a decent vantage point (because of its autonomy) to watch his information bomb discharge. The world reacted to America’s internal leak and ensuing controversy with a touch of schadenfreude, embracing the situation with the delight of a younger sibling when “Big Brother” gets in trouble. Even in America’s friendliest part of the world, Western Europe, outrage over America’s domestic and international spying has emerged. European Parliament President, Martin Schulz, announced he was “deeply worried and shocked about the allegations of U.S. authorities spying on E.U. offices.”9 Additionally, officials from Germany, Italy, and Luxembourg have said that the exposé may complicate ongoing talks of a trans-Atlantic trade treaty.
Snowden left Hong Kong for Russia, where he currently remains in a Moscow airport. Thanks to Chinese and Russian efforts, along with the help of the Wikileaks organization, Snowden has escaped U.S. clutches for long enough to receive asylum in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador.10 Snowden has accepted these offers and will likely end up somewhere in Latin America if he can successfully evade the U.S. government. However, as of right now he waits in a Russian airport, stuck in legal limbo until he can be assured safe travel.
The immense political pressure America wields has clearly scared off some countries that Snowden asked for asylum. Latin America jumped at a chance to meddle in American affairs after decades of U.S. abuse. Though America does supply much of Latin America with foreign aid (about $148 billion since 1946) it has often been self-serving in nature.11 Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Ecuador may have bitten the hand that feeds them, but it is a hand that time and time again has only fed poison. The United States played a role in three Latin American coups d'état from the 1950’s-70’s, attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, supported the Nicaraguan contras in the 80’s, and was linked to the coup that attempted to oust Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in the early 2000’s. 12 Snowden’s reception of support in Latin America should not come as a surprise, but these governments have chosen a brave route (something else we should not find surprising) by interfering with American affairs. Snowden has far from landed safely in any of these countries, but the mere offer of asylum has given him hope and ensured further strife in the western hemisphere for decades to come.
Though Snowden’s fate has yet to be decided, this security breach has the potential to become a turning point in the Information Age. Snowden’s actions have put government surveillance in the forefront of America’s and the world’s minds. We may very well see a new arms race emerge from this scandal that replaces nuclear warheads with information-gathering technology and anti-ballistic missiles with defensive privacy-minded software. If Snowden does manage to escape prosecution, the NSA will be with him every step of the way.
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2Bradsher, Keith. "Snowden’s Leaks on China Could Affect Its Role in His Fate - NYTimes.com." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/15/world/asia/ex-nsa-contractors-disclosures-could-complicate-his-fate.html?pagewanted=all (accessed July 15, 2013).
3Dean, John W.. "George W. Bush as the New Richard M. Nixon." FindLaw's Writ | Legal Commentary. http://writ.corporate.findlaw.com/dean/20051230.html (accessed July 15, 2013).
4Lichtblau, Eric. "In Secret, Court Vastly Broadens Powers of N.S.A. - NYTimes.com." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/us/in-secret-court-vastly-broadens-powers-of-nsa.html (accessed July 15, 2013).
5Johnson, Kevin. "NSA taps data from 9 major Net firms." USA TODAY: Latest World and US News - USATODAY.com. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2013/06/06/nsa-surveillance-internet-companies/2398345/ (accessed July 15, 2013).
6Gellman, Barton. "U.S., British intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program - The Washington Post." The Washington Post: National, World & D.C. Area News and Headlines - The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/us-intelligence-mining-data-from-nine-us-internet-companies-in-broad-secret-program/2013/06/06/3a0c0da8-cebf-11e2-8845-d970ccb04497_story_1.html (accessed July 15, 2013).
7ACLU. "ACLU Files Lawsuit Challenging Constitutionality of NSA Phone Spying Program | American Civil Liberties Union." American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). http://www.aclu.org/national-security/aclu-files-lawsuit-challenging-constitutionality-nsa-phone-spying-program (accessed July 15, 2013).
8Freedom Watch. "Klayman expands Obama- NSA-Verizon suit into class action @ FreedomWatchUSA.org." Freedom Watch. http://www.freedomwatchusa.org/klayman-expands-obama-nsa-verizon-suit-into-class-action (accessed July 15, 2013).
9Core Publisher. "New NSA Spying Allegations Rile European Allies : NPR." NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=197228857 (accessed July 15, 2013).
10Peterson, Josh. "Snowden accepts all asylum offers | The Daily Caller." The Daily Caller. http://dailycaller.com/2013/07/12/snowden-accepts-all-asylum-offers/ (accessed July 15, 2013).
11Meyer, Peter J., and Mark P. Sullivan. "U.S. Foreign Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean: Recent Trends and FY2013 Appropriations." CRS Report for Congress 7-5700 (2012): 2.
12Vulliamy, Ed. " Venezuela coup linked to Bush team | World news | The Observer ." The Guardian . http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/apr/21/usa.venezuela (accessed July 15, 2013).