What is Edward Snowden’s Legacy?

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Friday, June 7, 2019


As Americans, we have come to take our liberty for granted for much of our history. Dating back to the fight against British tyranny, the Declaration of Independence, and our Constitution, it seems like the tenets of liberty and limited government are engraved in our system. But what happens when government overreach does happen and our system of checks and balances doesn’t stop this overreach?

In 2013, one of the largest examples of government overreach in our nation’s history was revealed to the public.

On June 5, 2013, Edward Snowden began publishing tens of thousands of classified documents detailing the various programs of the National Security Agency (NSA), primarily regarding data mining and counterterrorism projects, in The Guardian. During his time working for the NSA and its various contractors, he raised concerns about practices he deemed unethical, and when his concerns were dismissed, he began gradually obtaining classified material with the intent of public disclosure. Some of the most damning and crucial leaks included disclosure of the PRISM program, which allows the federal government to access private email accounts, the NSA’s Black Budget, secret allocations for projects that cannot be disclosed to the public, the Agency’s surveillance of foreign citizens and high-profile individuals, and XKeyscore, a program that allows unlimited and fully-comprehensive access to any domestic, or foreign in certain cases, user’s entire activity on the Internet with very few limits.

Snowden’s revelations brought outrage from both those who praised his actions and those who wanted him dead and intensified tensions between the United States and foreign countries, largely those that were targeted with surveillance. Most importantly, it brought the federal government’s blatant overreach right into the public eye. However, like all news, these revelations were only in the public eye for a short time. So, since June 2013, what has changed regarding the U.S. Intelligence Community and privacy rights?

Snowden accomplished his primary goal: to inform the public and stir a debate over surveillance and privacy. The Obama Administration, Congress, nor the courts could ignore a revelation this damning. While national security and surveillance laws like the Patriot Act were available for the public to access long before 2013, his leaks made the public not only aware of the laws, but also invested in them. So while his leaks stirred a debate, not much has changed institutionally regarding surveillance.

Regarding courts and the constitutionality of these surveillance programs, there have been a few positive changes. In December 2013, a federal judge ruled that the NSA’s program that collects telephone metadata is unconstitutional in Klayman v. Obama; however, this case failed in an Appeals Court and no injunction to stop the program ever occured. In 2015, an Appeals Court ruled that the Patriot Act did not give the NSA authority to gather calling records, but did not establish any theories on the program’s constitutionality, in ACLU v. Tapper. Shortly after this ruling, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, which modified the expired Patriot Act and established some limits on bulk telecommunication data. In 2017, the Agency stopped collecting the data of individuals who were not in contact with intelligence targets, showing some progress towards privacy rights.

These changes were positive and evolutionary steps towards privacy rights and limiting the federal government’s authority, but they changed little about the institutions of the Intelligence Community. The NSA still collects massive metadata, although limited by specific search terms and guidelines. The Intelligence Community still lacks a legitimate system of checks and balances, and the constitutionality of many of their programs, both revealed in the leaks and those that have not been revealed, is still in question. While the theory of a “deep state” is still far-fetched, it’s hard to argue that these intelligence agencies are held accountable and transparent, intensifying public mistrust.

In 2018, President Trump signed a bill to reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows these intelligence agencies to spy and collect data from both U.S. citizens and foreign citizens, which is a gross overstep of the role of the executive branch regardless of whether it is constitutional or not. Given that President Trump has made little effort to limit the powers of the Executive Branch, it is unlikely that surveillance policy and privacy rights will change for the better anytime soon.

In six years, not a lot has changed. Snowden’s actions were patriotic, he was successful in creating a public debate over privacy rights and surveillance, and there have been some positive changes since his revelations. However, there has been little institutional change regarding the bulk collection of data and privacy rights have not been significantly strengthened in these six years. And as the status quo remains, it looks like the Executive’s blatant overreach and unethical practices will also remain.

Aidan McIntosh is a member of The Catholic University of America's Class of 2022. After Edward Snowden's revelations about the N.S.A. in 2013, he began to take an interest in politics and understand the merits of limited government and personal freedom. He has a strong passion for constitutional law, religious liberty, and foreign policy, and enjoys hiking, powerlifting, and writing about music.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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About Aidan McIntosh

Catholic University

Aidan McIntosh is a member of The Catholic University of America's Class of 2022. After Edward Snowden's revelations about the N.S.A. in 2013, he began to take an interest in politics and understand the merits of limited government and personal freedom. He has a strong passion for constitutional law, religious liberty, and foreign policy, and enjoys hiking, powerlifting, and writing about music.

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