Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

(Image: Laura Poitras)

Three Years Later, the Snowden Leaks Have Changed How the World Sees NSA Surveillance

Three years ago today, the world got powerful confirmation that the NSA was spying on the digital lives of hundreds of millions of innocent people. It started with a secret order written by the FISA court authorizing the mass surveillance of Verizon Business telephone records—an order that members of Congress quickly confirmed was similar to orders that had been issued every 3 months for years. Over the next year, we saw a steady drumbeat of damning evidence, creating a detailed, horrifying picture of an intelligence agency unrestrained by Congress and shielded from public oversight by a broken classification system.

The leaks were thanks in large part to whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has been living in Russia for the last three years, unable to return to the United States for fear of spending his life behind bars. Faced with charges under the Espionage Act, Snowden would be charged as if he were an agent of a foreign power who had given secrets to enemies of the United States, rather than as a whistleblower who worked with a team of reputable, award-winning journalists to bring public attention to a corrupt surveillance system. But Snowden’s motivations—and the impact of the leaks—were clearly to benefit the public. He has talked about his strong interest in restoring privacy to the Internet, stating “I remember what the Internet was like before it was being watched, and there's never been anything in the history of man that's like it.”

The Snowden leaks caused a sea change in the policy landscape related to surveillance. EFF worked with dozens of coalition partners across the political spectrum to pass the USA Freedom Act, the first piece of legislation to rein in NSA spying in over thirty years—a bill that would have been unthinkable without the Snowden leaks. They also set the stage for a major showdown in Congress over Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, the controversial section of law set to expire in 2017 that the government claims authorizes much of the NSA’s Internet surveillance.

The Snowden leaks were fundamental to EFF’s impact litigation strategy. Our legal team has launched three cases directly challenging the legal and constitutional grounds of NSA mass surveillance—First Unitarian v. NSA, Jewel v NSA, and our flagship case Hepting v AT&T. We are also engaged in FOIA litigation to uncover more about NSA spying and we serve as amicus in several key cases challenging NSA surveillance in the United States. The Snowden leaks and statements made by public officials responding to the leaks corroborated and provided vital details about NSA surveillance practices, which we’re using in our court cases.

Perhaps most importantly, the Snowden leaks published over the last three years have helped to realign a broken relationship between the intelligence community and the public. Whistleblowers often serve as a last-resort failsafe when there are no other methods of bringing accountability to secretive processes. The Snowden leaks have helped illuminate how the NSA was operating outside the law with near impunity, and this in turn drove an international conversation about the dangers of near-omniscient surveillance of our digital communications.

That conversation isn’t finished, and won’t be until the NSA surveillance wiretaps of the Internet are unplugged for good. But today, we’re thankful to the many brave whistleblowers who have made this public discussion possible, the investigative journalists who have worked doggedly to unpack these complex issues, the many advocacy organizations, technologists, and lawyers working with us to challenge these practices, and the countless EFF members and supporters who fight along side us.

Check out our roundup of 65 things we know thanks to the Snowden leaks, our timeline of NSA domestic surveillance (dating back to well before Snowden!), our game plan for ending mass surveillance, and our guide to defending yourself against surveillance. Also, please join EFF as a member to support our work to fight surveillance.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'Embarrassing': US Absent as World Joins Together to Protect Biodiversity

"It reinforces the notion that the U.S. is a fair-weather partner when it comes to environmental conservation, including issues of climate change," said one critic.

Kenny Stancil ·

'It Was Torture': African Asylum-Seekers Describe Restraint Agony on ICE 'Death Flights'

"In Cameroon, I had been beaten with a machete until my feet swelled and bled... But the day I was put in the WRAP by ICE, I wanted to die. I have never felt such horrible pain."

Brett Wilkins ·

Progressives to Biden: Ignore Panel Advice and Embrace Supreme Court Expansion

"The GOP's rigged bench is contorting our laws," said Sen. Ed Markey. "We need to pass legislation to expand the Supreme Court."

Jake Johnson ·

Tory Lawmaker Stabbed to Death During Meeting With Constituents in UK

"Horrific and deeply shocking news," said Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer in response to the assassination of MP David Amess.

Common Dreams staff ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo