Snowden warns today's surveillance technology makes 2013 look like 'child's play'
With this week marking 10 years since whistleblower Edward Snowden disclosed information to journalists about widespread government spying by United States and British agencies, the former National Security Agency contractor on Thursday joined other advocates in warning that the fight for privacy rights, while making several inroads in the past decade, has grown harder due to major changes in technology.
"If we think about what we saw in 2013 and the capabilities of governments today," Snowden told The Guardian, "2013 seems like child's play."
Snowden said that the advent of commercially available surveillance products such as Ring cameras, Pegasus spyware, and facial recognition technology has posed new dangers.
As Common Dreams has reported, the home security company Ring has faced legal challenges due to security concerns and its products' vulnerability to hacking, and has faced criticism from rights groups for partnering with more than 1,000 police departments—including some with histories of police violence—and leaving community members vulnerable to harassment or wrongful arrests.
Law enforcement agencies have also begun using facial recognition technology to identify crime suspects despite the fact that the software is known to frequently misidentify people of color—leading to the wrongful arrest and detention earlier this year of Randal Reid in Georgia, among other cases.
"Despite calls over the last few years for federal legislation to rein in Big Tech companies, we've seen nothing significant in limiting tech companies' ability to collect data."
Last month, journalists and civil society groups called for a global moratorium on the sale and transfer of spyware like Pegasus, which has been used to target dozens of journalists in at least 10 countries.
Protecting the public from surveillance "is an ongoing process," Snowden told The Guardian on Thursday. "And we will have to be working at it for the rest of our lives and our children's lives and beyond."
In 2013, Snowden revealed that the U.S. government was broadly monitoring the communications of citizens, sparking a debate over surveillance as well as sustained privacy rights campaigns from groups like Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Fight for the Future.
"Technology has grown to be enormously influential," Snowden told The Guardian on Thursday. "We trusted the government not to screw us. But they did. We trusted the tech companies not to take advantage of us. But they did. That is going to happen again, because that is the nature of power."
Last month ahead of the anniversary of Snowden's revelations, EFF noted that some improvements to privacy rights have been made in the past decade, including:
- The sunsetting of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which until 2020 allowed the U.S. government to conduct a dragnet surveillance program that collected billions of phone records;
- The emergence of end-to-end encryption of internet communications, which Snowden noted was "a pipe dream in 2013";
- The end of the NSA's bulk collection of internet metadata, including email addresses of senders and recipients; and
- Rulings in countries including South Africa and Germany against bulk data collection.
The group noted that privacy advocates are still pushing Congress to end Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which permits the warrantless surveillance of Americans' communications, and "to take privacy seriously," particularly as tech companies expand spying capabilities.
"Despite calls over the last few years for federal legislation to rein in Big Tech companies, we've seen nothing significant in limiting tech companies' ability to collect data... or regulate biometric surveillance, or close the backdoor that allows the government to buy personal information rather than get a warrant, much less create a new Church Committee to investigate the intelligence community's overreaches," wrote EFF senior policy analyst Matthew Guariglia, executive director Cindy Cohn, and assistant director Andrew Crocker. "It's why so many cities and states have had to take it upon themselves to ban face recognition or predictive policing, or pass laws to protect consumer privacy and stop biometric data collection without consent."
"It's been 10 years since the Snowden revelations," they added, "and Congress needs to wake up and finally pass some legislation that actually protects our privacy, from companies as well as from the NSA directly."