The Snowden Effect

2014 AnOx alumnus José Antonio Brambila discusses US and international government response in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations.

The massive and indiscriminate espionage performed by the American government through its National Security Agency (NSA), and its British counterpart the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), is an issue that appears as if it has always been at the forefront of global debates. It is difficult to believe that just a few years ago the suspicion of abusive practices by the American government was largely absent from the public arena. To most, it seemed inconceivable that a democratically elected government could, under the pretext of its worldwide crusade against terrorism, be surveilling the private conversations of the North American population, thirty-five world leaders, and thousands of other people worldwide through phone call interception and infiltrating electronic data and metadata.

American and international responses to the disclosure given by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden have launched a previously silent debate—a debate surrounding the boundaries of the American espionage system and citizens’ right to privacy. The revelations that The Guardian began to publish in June 2013, followed by newspapers such as The Washington Post, Der Speigel, and The Intercept among others, not only established the strategic points on the debate, but also provoked gradual changes to the United States’ spying structure. These developments would have been unthinkable without Snowden’s disclosure.

Obama’s administration has garnered both national and international responses surrounding the disclosures—responses that seek  to stop intrusive, unpopular, and tremendously harmful surveillance policies. In the United States, before the disclosure there was not an open debate[1] about the espionage performed by the NSA or other agencies that received significant increases in resources since George W. Bush’s government launched the war against international terrorism back in 2001.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald, a safety issues specialist who, along with documentarian Laura Poitras, was hired by Snowden to leak the story, recognized that not a single document on the secrecy and the scope of the NSA had been published until those brought to light by Snowden. According to British journalist Lukes Harding (The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World´s Most Wanted Man, 2014), unlike Chelsea Manning’s leaks through Wikileaks, of which only six percent were material classified as “top secret,” Snowden’s leaks belong to a different league of classified, as they are “ultra secret” the highest rank of secrecy.

According to numbers given by Gallup, after the disclosure, government surveillance was positioned as one of the main topics on the American agenda, preceded by only economics, and education reform. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2013, for the first time in three years, the number of Americans who believe that the government “has gone too far” with its anti-terrorism practices, including massive espionage, has increased.

Since January 2014, when President Barack Obama announced there were going to be changes in the way the government surveils phone calls, few advances on the issue have been made. One such advance includes  specific recommendations the President received from an independent commission, which Obama solicited himself, to limit the way in which the NSA spies on American citizens. However, despite these moves to change, Obama’s administration has unleashed a wave of legal actions without precedent against seven governmental leakers, more than any of the previous administrations.

Unlike the executive branch, in Congress there have been certain, but insufficient achievements since the scandal came to light. A few days after the first publication on the NSA irregularities, Congress moved to control the NSA’s abuse of power. In an act rarely seen in Washington, in July 24, 2013, the House of Representatives was close to approving a proposal put forth by two congressmen (who usually stand on opposing sides[2]) that defended the privacy of North Americans by restricting the collection of data performed by the NSA. At the end of the day, however, after an intense lobby conducted by NSA personnel, the House rejected the bill, with 205 representatives voting in favor and 217 against.

Since then, one of the most significant achievements has been the approval of the USA Freedom Act Bill by the House of Representatives in May 2014, which passed with 303 votes in favor and 121 against. The bill states that phone companies, not the NSA, must collect and store phone calls up to 18 months. The bill, which is currently in the Senate, also removes the NSA’s faculty to arbitrarily and massively collect communications between American citizens (phone and internet calls, including metadata). If the bill is approved, the NSA must request access to specific data. Despite this progress, critics claim that the terms of the law have remained broad enough to let the NSA request large lists of telephone numbers and IP addresses. It is hoped that the Senate will soon vote on an improved version of this bill that includes certain limits of intelligence agency abuse prevention.

Outside the United States, Europe is one of the places where there has been significant indignation and concern about Snowden’s disclosure. Without a doubt, the most important bilateral relationship affected since the revelation is that of the United States and Germany. Usually seen as an ally, Germany, a country which during the twentieth century suffered abuse from the Gestapo and the Stasi, was especially outraged by the surveillance on its citizens. In thirty days, the NSA collected half a billion phone calls, emails and texts messages from German citizens. This surveillance included information from the chancellor’s private phone. The relationship between Washington and Berlin is in its worst state since the beginning of the scandal. On July 11th 2014, the CIA station chief was ordered out of Germany by the country’s authorities after learning that earlier that month the German government arrested two double agents who worked for both Germany’s and USA’s secret services.

The German government has taken serious actions in response to the Snowden revelations. By October 2013, it had launched a project to stop German communication companies, along with the state-owned Deutsche Telekom, from depending upon American tech giants like Google, who were also involved in the surveillance scandal. In June 2014 the German government opened an official investigation on the surveillance carried out against the chancellor.

Even though in Latin America the leaks revealed US surveillance on leaders and citizens from countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela, and Mexico (including the then presidential candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto), only Brazil’s government reacted and formed concrete and serious actions.

The disclosure of US spying on Brazilian state-owned company Petrobras, as well as on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, provoked two reactions. The first was the approval of the Marco Civil da Internet (the Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet), which was stuck in the legislative freezer for three years. After the revelations, the Marco Civil was promptly discussed and approved on April 22nd 2014. The Marco Civil, commonly known as the ‘constitution of the internet,’ guarantees the neutrality of the internet (avoiding information discrimination by service providers) and safeguards internet users’ right to privacy. Moreover, the new law makes it illegal for internet companies collaborate with foreign intelligence agencies, such as the NSA.

The second reaction to the surveillance revelations was the April 2014 Brazilian government-sponsored Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance (NETmundial), an international congress supported by eight hundred representatives from eighty-five countries, with the purpose of discussing a roadmap for the future of the internet. In spite of big expectations about the meeting and  due to pressure coming from American and European representatives, the final document approved in Brazil excluded a pledge in support of net neutrality, one of the most important elements in the international debate on internet governance. The conference did, however, approve a brief document of ten pages that condemned massive state espionage (without specifically mentioning NSA actions) and determined that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)  in charge of managing domains and IP names should no longer be under the yoke of the United States government, but should instead be a “true international organization at the service of public interests, with clear, verifiable and transparent  mechanisms.”

Germany and Brazil have been important allies when it comes to promoting international initiatives that oppose massive surveillance by the US. In December 2013, for example, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously approved a resolution promoted by Germany and Brazil that condemned massive espionage on citizens and encouraged protecting citizens’ right to privacy. Additionally, by February 2014, Brazil’s President Rousseff announced the building of a transatlantic submarine cable that goes from the city of Fortaleza in Brazil to Lisbon in Spain. The cable is projected to be active in 2015 and will keep internet data exchanged through the cable from going through American or British territory where most of the internet traffic currently flows.

Whether from the United States, Europe or Latin America, the voices that condemn and seek to stop massive surveillance lead by the NSA have spoken up throughout the past year. This discontent has slowly transformed into the first advances to regulate the international mass surveillance system and secure the right to privacy. In the months and years to come, we will keep witnessing global reactions to the Snowden effect. Great battles will be held to protect the citizens from the abusive use of technology by powerful countries.

[1]Obama recognized in January 17, 2014, that public debate about surveillance would not have happend without Snowden´s disclousers, despite

[2] I refer to the initiative presented by democrat John Conyers, and conservative Tea Party member, Justin Amash.


José Antonio Brambila is a PhD student from Department of Journalism at University of Sheffied. He holds a BA in Communication from the Panamerican University (2008) and a Master in Political Science from El Colegio de México (2011). He has also presented over twenty conference papers, guest lectures, and talks in Mexico, Europe, and Japan. Follow José Antonio on Twitter at @jabrambila. The Spanish version of this article was published in August on the web site of Foreign Affairs Latin America.


Featured Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by greensefa 

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